Kiss of the Spider Woman

The property of Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, proved a promised land for independent filmmaking. It has a minimalist scope — two prisoners sharing a cell — and content that channels both psycho-sexual and political complexities.

Essentially an extended dialog possessing a novelistic range, Kiss of the Spider Woman contains language so smooth and elegant the reader never grows irritated by the omission of narration or Puig’s extended descriptions of classic movie plots. (One wonders if his detractors told him to quit novel writing and go back to the movie biz, Puig’s previous profession.) Tennessee Williams possessed such grace, so it came as no surprise Puig brought his novel to the stage, in what may very well be the more effective version of the tale.

First touring Spain and London, Puig’s dramatic version didn’t reach the US until after it was adapted to the big screen. And by the time American audiences took notice of the play, the novel had been reborn as a musical. (With Sunset Blvd. simultaneously adapted to the stage with song, Broadway just couldn’t resist blacks widows, or so it appears.)

Valentin and Molina’s relationship lays bare for our investigation in the initial dramatized version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. The latter, a worn political prisoner, listens to movie tales spun by the other, a cross-dressing sexual offender dazzled by the magnificence of golden-age starlets. On the stage — and easily imagined on the page — Molina poses through every melodramatic description, as he narrates scenes in detail as if working in real time.

Val Lewton’s Cat People, the first film he narrates for Valentin, has bestial undercurrents, which inspires the teller’s performance. Hence, we have a pragmatic straight arrow: Dutiful to the social resistance that incarcerated him and being led by the other, one for whom Valentin wouldn’t have had much use in the free world. More than passing time, Molina’s storytelling threads the narrative and has Molina’s mind returning to his love lost.

In the 1985 film, now finally available on DVD, the performances of William Hurt as Molina and Raoul Julia as Valentin still leave audiences dumbstruck, as both actors perform as if it’s personal, like a calling to which both were destined. For such intimate two-for scenes to work, the actors would need to be more comfortable performing the scenes than the real people would be living them.

As Molina and Valentin grow closer and more interdependent, Hurt and Julia let themselves go and submit to deep intimacy, a performance challenge that pays off magnificently. Committed to the oppressed, Valentin sees Molina, in his gender complexities and his abuse by the authorities, as a helpless victim and draws nearer once he sees the tender humanity beneath his own political conceptualization.

Julia’s rationalizing agitator softens subtly right before the viewer’s eyes as if he pulls off a magic trick in developing his character. The transformed Valentin defines as enigmatic, in that we see him as going into gray rather than from black to white.

As the cross-dressing effete, Hurt’s would seem the tougher role — and the Academy agreed when he won the Oscar, a breakthrough for independent film. His interactions with his cellmate portray gender as performance, as his alternate masculinity becomes tested against his cellmate, who exudes a determined manliness. A man with a feminine identity centered on the movieland glamour of old, Hurt’s role turns out to be more of a stunt, which the actor masters with strength and grace. Yet Julia’s pliant role makes for a credible mate to Molina, one who can understand and embrace the putative other. Valentin, however, opens himself to a man whose profuse empathy only runs so deep.

Not long after Valentin’s crime reveals itself, we find ourselves wondering about Molina’s intentions. An easy target for victimization, the latter has been a pawn for the prison’s political structure all the while and, as a result, has been forced to fish for information about Valentin’s participation in the resistance. (Valentin’s backstory becomes all the more enigmatic in that the setting is an unnamed Latin American country.)

Yet Molina never loses our sympathy because his concern for Valentin is real, ranking second to other personal interests. Molina, in retrospect, defines as a tragic figure. As a sex offender, he is a gay man in a cinema still unable to embrace alternate sexualities without labeling them as perverse. Molina abruptly defends his sexuality in a hamfisted and dated manner, as if his kimono and head-to-toe femininity couldn’t clue everyone in. As ideologically intriguing as it may be, Kiss of the Spider Woman remains stuck at the threshold of the cinematic closet.

Such themes of sexuality attracted director Hector Babenco. His 1981 film Pixote, a critical darling in its own right, tells a verite tale of youth lost in Brazilian slums who turn to crime or whatever else gets them by. After police arrest random boys during a crimewave, the weaker ones get raped by the toughs.

A tight-knit group break away, turning the story into a grim and ironic take on Peter Pan — a never never land quite dismal — until the boys find security in a whore/mother figure. On the way to this sanctuary, the boys find sexual release wherever they can.

Babenco, undaunted by such gender challenges, committed to documenting the boys’ hard times. The film begins with its director addressing the camera and explaining that he is filming real boys acting in their own milieu. He finishes the intro with his camera focusing in on young Fernando Ramos da Silva near his hovel of a home, before he becomes the title character. (Life mimicked art all too well when da Silva, at 19, was later killed by police while resisting arrest.) The pre-teen Pixote, who roams with his mostly older friends, would come to see life better anywhere than his hometown.

While Pixote was a near docudrama, Kiss of the Spider Woman challenged Babenco to use a more expressionist approach. By capturing Valentin and Molina in conversation, Babenco spares no details but is more focused on visually illustrating how one man bonds to the other. The depictions of Molina’s film story — in this version a Nazi-propaganda film masked as a romance, featuring Sonia Braga (that source of one thousand sexual fantasies) — are filmed with heightened flourishes of melodrama, the kind of lighting and camerawork that must have been a treat for Babenco. These scenes, along with the dream-like cell footage, contrast with the gritty exterior cell block. The transition plays like dreams into waking life and show the impact of fantasy on those attempting to escape fate.

Yet the moments outside the cell disrupt a unity of style and affect what makes the stage version — taking place entirely in the cell — so strong. The tendency to open up Puig’s drama, perhaps an inspiration from adapter Leonard Schrader as much as Babenco, the committed realist, feels like an exit away from unsolvable issues in filmmaking. These “exterior” scenes feel like those cut in by another, lesser filmmaker.

The same seems true after the climax filmed on a street scene has run its course; it seems as if Molina has been thrown into a new story for which his player is unprepared. (The stage version’s closing, in which a tape of the two characters describing their fates played as they silently prepared for their last act of defiance, lends the right tone for the tale’s consummating doom.)

Earlier in the dream-like cell, the duplicitous Valentin spins his imaginary Nazi film story for as long as he can. When his love for Valentin overwhelms him (when the two men converge), Molina dreams up the brief tale of the Spider Woman’s fatal kiss to a lost man. Metaphor overtakes the torn Molina, after his Kiss of Death has already left its sting.

Kiss of the Spider Woman gains miles in its casting but not as much in its cinematic form. The stage version, with its relentless unity of time/place, benefits more so from Valentin’s betrayals revealed in a taped voiceover, a device that inspires dread as viewers anticipate its reappearance. These mere hints of fate are revealed while the two characters remain rapt in their connection, while the film awkwardly cuts out space for Molina’s deception to the warden. Nonetheless, Babenco’s film blends ideology with drama and betrayal for a tale as intellectually rewarding as it is passionate.

City Lights Media’s new two-disc set (available in both traditional and Blu-ray formats) contains the excellent, new feature-length documentary Tangled Web: Making Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Worth more than the DVD’s price alone, this film documents and details the film’s story from its initial option to its critical reception and legacy. Director David Weisman, who also produced Kiss of the Spider Woman, comes off as rightful creative force behind the production, as it was his passion before becoming Babenco’s and the leads’.

Fascinatingly enough, Burt Lancaster(!) signed on to play Molina at first but proved too controlling in his own obsession of Puig’s novel. Hurt and Babenco later discussing the film thrills, as they display their joys and frustrations of seeing an underdog-project of collective passion triumph at the Academy Awards. In fact, Weisman gets so much good stuff from so many talking heads his editing

actually becomes erratic at spots, though this engrossing true story suffers little harm as a result.

The only issue: Why City Lights, which also includes a variety of other fine, short featurettes, didn’t list the plentiful contents on the DVD packaging. This boutique could clue store browsers to the fact this slim volume comes packed with the goods!

RATING 7 / 10