Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
Directed by Hector Babenco
Produced by Francisco Ramalho Jr. and David Weisman
Written by Leonard Schrader
Based on the novel by Manuel Puig
Cinematography by Rodolfo Sánchez
Edited by Mauro Alice
Music by Nando Carneiro, John Neschling, Wally Badarou
ICRA DVD (2:01)
The chapter for Kiss of the Spider Woman in Argentine Cinema: From Noir to Neo-Noir requires you to wrap your head around several different concepts. First of all, the authors consider not only the 1985 film by Hector Babenco, but also the 1976 Manuel Puig novel and the award-winning 1993 musical. Things get even more strange when you realize that the film (the prime focus of the chapter) doesn’t specifically take place in Argentina, nor was it an Argentine production. Finally, the locales differ significantly: Puig’s novel clearly takes place in a Buenos Aires penitentiary; the film, in an unnamed prison whose signs and street scenes suggest São Paulo, Brazil; the musical, in an unidentified Caribbean country. Having read the novel and watched the film, my comments will focus primarily on the movie.
Puig’s novel is set during the final years of the last Perón presidency, making that period very relevant to the work. Changing the location of the film also changes the political nature of the story, which seems less focused on politics than on relationships. I do not mean to imply that the politics of the film are unimportant, but they appear almost muted in comparison to the novel, which mostly reads like a script between two characters.
The basic plot of all three versions of the story is fairly consistent: an apolitical transgender* woman window dresser named Molina (William Hurt, who won a Best Actor Oscar for the role) shares a prison cell with a political activist named Valentin (Raul Julia). To pass the time, Molina relates the stories of several of his favorite movies. Although the novel includes retellings of the Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton collaborations Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, the Molina in the Babenco film focuses mostly on a fictitious 1940s movie called Her Real Glory, a Nazi propaganda film filled with noir tropes. Kiss of the Spider Woman thus presents a film noir within a film noir. In his review, Roger Ebert states that the film “is a lurid intrigue that seems pieced together from fragments and memories of countless old film noir melodramas – from those movies of the 1940s where the women had lips that could kill, and the men were dying to kiss them.” Molina is clearly a romantic, using the fantasies of film as a mental escape from incarceration, the best escape he can hope for at this point. Valentin is grounded in realism and has no time for fantasies, but at least Molina’s narratives help pass the time.
In lesser hands than Babenco’s, we might expect a strange sort of Odd Couple movie filled with mostly humor and the occasional dramatic moment in which two completely different characters eventually come to mutual understanding, if not respect for one another. There would be nothing wrong with such a film, but Babenco is after something far more interesting with several layers of complexity.
The first layer of complexity – apart from the men’s different worldviews – stems from their individual motivations. Yes, they both want to escape prison, but Molina’s greater concern is for his mother living alone without him. Valentin is desperate to contact a political activist friend on the outside. (Through a narrow gap in the cell, he can see prisoners as they are being brought in, some of whom may also be fighting with Valentin in the rebellion.) But are there further motivations driving them? What exactly do Molina’s narratives of his favorite movies tell us about him? Is he just telling stories or is he attempting to get inside Valentin’s head? Are these films even real or improvisatory products of Molina’s imagination?
One of the fascinating aspects of Molina’s tale of Her Real Glory involves that film’s protagonist Leni (Sônia Braga), a French chanteuse who falls in love with a Nazi officer. Although these scenes are mostly over-the-top moments filled with bad acting, Molina relates them as high art. Furthermore, he sees Leni as a tragic, romantic figure worthy of our sympathy. By contrast, Valentin is contemptuous of both the character of Leni and the story. At least that’s how things begin. The question in the viewer’s mind comes back to motivation: is Valentin beginning to understand the nature of Molina’s stories (to say nothing of Molina himself) or is Molina acting as a Scheherazade luring Valentin into his web? And for what purpose?
Speaking of webs, what about the Spider Woman of the title? She (also played by Braga) belongs to another of Molina’s films, but she also represents the femme fatale, suggesting that her kiss is deadly. Yet who is acting as the Spider Woman in the reality of the prison? Molina? Valentin? Valentin’s actual lover (played in flashback, once more by Braga)? As the intricacies of the film unfold, we begin to ask ourselves “Who’s the real femme fatale of the movie?” We may also wonder why these men are even in the same cell in the first place.
Revealing more about the plot and its characters would be unfair, but we come to understand why things are happening as they do. All the while, we’re treated to outstanding performances by both Hurt and Julia, a criminally neglected actor who always delivers amazing work.
At this early point in the book (the second entry after an introductory chapter), I wondered not only why Kiss of the Spider Woman (a film not produced in Argentina) was included, but also why it appears so early in the book. The gap between the book’s first film examined, El ángel desnudo, and Kiss of the Spider Woman is nearly 40 years. During that gap, Argentina produced several film noir titles including Apenas un delincuente (Hardly a Criminal, 1949), Native Son (1951), No abras nunca esa puerta (Never Open That Door, 1952), Si Muero antes de despertar (If I Should Die Before I Wake, 1952), El Vampiro negro (The Black Vampire, 1953), and Los tallos amargos (The Bitter Stems, 1956), and those are just the ones I’m aware of. Perhaps that gap is explained at the book’s conclusion. Regardless, the entry on Kiss of the Spider Woman is satisfying, does a good job of delving into the intricacies of the film, and briefly examines the differences between the formats of book, film, and musical.
*An abstract of one study I discovered examines the individuality and identity of the character of Molina in the film, debating whether Molina should be referred to as a gay man or a transgender woman.
Photos: IMDb, The Hand Grenade, DVD Beaver