June 7, 2011

Queer Review: Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Director: Hector Babenco
Writer: Manuel Puig. Based upon the novel by Leonard Schrader.
Cast: William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, José Lewgoy, Milton Gonçalves

Kiss of the Spider Woman became one of the most popular gay films in Latin America after it was released in 1985. Featuring some astounding acting and writing, this is one of the more impressive queer films to come out of the 1980's that I have seen.

The story of Kiss of the Spider Woman revolves around two cell mates in an unspecified South American prison. One is a drag queen Luis Molina (William Hurt) who was convicted of corrupting a minor and the other a political activist being tortured for information, Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia). These two form an intimate bond as Molina tells Valentin stories in order to help them forget the harsh realities of their situation. All of these stories, the most prominent one which comes from a Nazi propaganda film, feature a metaphorical Spider Woman/femme fatale. Molina is also a metaphorical Spiderwoman who, even though he his falling in love with Valentin, has pledged to help the prison warden (José Lewgoy) and a secret police officer (Milton Gonçalves) by earning Valentin's trust in order to obtain vital information Valentin has regarding anti-goverment groups.

The Queering
This is a movie that is rife with subtexts and metaphors, making it all the more worthwhile for those who like to think while they watch a movie rather than those who like being dazzled by pretty explosions and soulless special effects. On one hand, I am not the sort of person who believes as many critics have suggested, that the death of mature and artful cinema is upon us, even in 2011 and our summer of sequalitis, dumb action movies, and 3D overuse and abuse. On the other hand, watching a movie like Kiss of the Spider Woman where the emphasis is on telling an interesting story and developing complex characters, did make me realize how rare movies that take a serious look at the human condition are becoming and therefore how precious a film like this really is.

The most interesting subtext revolves around the Spider Woman (Sonia Braga), a metaphor that made me think of the black widow who devours her arachnid lovers. Like the black widow, Molina represents a clear danger to Valentine, even when Molina declares his deep love for the political agitator. The greatest suspense comes from wondering if Molina will betray Valentino in order to secure his parole or if he will keep any information Valentino passes on to him secret.

The relationship between Molina and Valentine forms the crux of Kiss of the Spider Woman's thematic soul and represents one of the most subversive queer relationships I have seen in the movies. There are layers and complexities to their relationship beyond anything that usually finds it's way onto theater screens. There is one scene where Molina and Valentine make love, but nothing is shown and the movie on the whole is almost entirely devoid of sexual content. The love they share is clearly platonic and not based on any physical attraction, making what appears to be an inevitable betrayal all the more frightening.

Naturally in a movie like this, the acting of both the leads, William Hurt and Raul Julia, is of the highest caliber and neither one strikes a wrong note. As the amgiguous Spiderwoman that Molina idolizes, Sonia Braga is exudes the necessary feminine mystique, exuding both pose and danger at the same time.

Highly recommended. This is the perfect antidote to all the CGI and 3D nonsense that will be thrown in audiences faces this summer.

The Rating


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