KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN B
Brazil USA (120 mi) 1985 d: Hector Babenco
This business of being a man, it doesn’t give any special rights to anyone.
―Valentin (Raúl Juliá)
From the director of PIXOTE (1981), a searingly realist street drama of homeless youth and rampant criminal activity as seen through the eyes of a ten-year old caught up in a Darwinian dog-eat-dog world around him, this film is adapted from Argentine novelist Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel by the same name (initially published in Spain, as it was banned in his home country), reflective of the repressive military regimes in Argentina from the 60’s and 70’s, including the Dirty War when 30,000 citizens were rounded up and jailed for supposedly subversive acts against the state, tortured and held without trials, only to disappear without a trace. Growing up as a gay man in Buenos Aires, Puig recounts there was an authoritarian and repressive atmosphere in his town, developing a habit of viewing movies with his mother in the local cinema, mostly B-movies or westerns, where he always viewed the townspeople as the villains, not the heroes, where movies served as an escape from his forbidden reality of being gay. Today, Argentina is among the more advanced countries around the world in advancing gay rights, but that was only after a return to democracy in 1983. Prior to that, military dictatorships went on cleansing sprees in an attempt to arrest and eradicate gays from public visibility, directly attacking gay community members prior to the World Cup in 1978, followed by another round of paramilitary attacks in 1982. This political mood, and the revolutionary activism following the Cuban Revolution which led to a rising Marxist labor movement in South America is at the heart of the film, serving as the backdrop, much like the depiction of the Stasi government in East Germany, with government agents spying upon targeted citizens. As Babenco is an Argentine-born Brazilian director with a propensity for social realism, he seems like the perfect fit to transport the novel to the screen, his first film in English, yet this is surprisingly Hollywood-oriented, featuring major stars, where controversy surrounds this film in the casting choice of William Hurt as Molina, playing a flamboyantly gay drag queen imprisoned for child molestation (a unique choice for a protagonist, not seen since), yet he’s clearly the star, while his cellmate is Raúl Juliá as Valentin, a Marxist revolutionary political prisoner who is a target of repeated interrogation sessions of torture designed to identify his activist group. Set almost entirely within the four walls of their prison cell, these two are an unlikely duo, with completely different goals and ideas in life, with Molina, safely tucked into a corner lined with photographs of glamorous Hollywood movie stars, searching for the perfect man he can take care of while Valentin wants to overthrow the fascist government. The fatalistic symbol of the spider ensnaring its prey along with a prevailing theme of entrappment are felt throughout, yet this is, at core, a love story, with both representing cultural stereotypes, their confinement in prison reflecting the government repression of homosexuality and Marxism.
The mythology surrounding cinema is a key component to this film, considering the pain and isolation of prison confinement, with Molina helping pass the time by telling the story of a movie from his past, an expressionist fantasy from the golden age of Hollywood in the 30’s and 40’s, not one anyone’s ever heard of, but one that made an impression on him, so he loves telling it in his own way. While the book recounts half a dozen movies, some vividly recognizable, the film condenses them all into one movie, becoming a movie-within-a-movie, with Babenco describing his film as “an exercise in lying in two styles.” Weaving emotional illusion into their existing reality, with Valentin, weak and still bleeding profusely from brutal beatings, finding the stories utterly reprehensible bourgeois crap, particularly when he realizes it’s actually a heavily romanticized Nazi propaganda flick, an imagined UFA film shot in a sepia tone featuring wildly over-the-top acting, yet Molina’s heart flutters at the thought of the sexy Vichy-era French chanteuse, Leni (Sônia Braga), who he loves to describe, with a decadent, jazz-inspired underground flavor of Paris coming across as well, luridly pitting the head of Nazi counterintelligence (Herson Capri), against the buffoonish French Resistance. Meant to resemble Zarah Leander, an UFA star during the war who became a gay icon, where one should point out that the song she sings is echoed later in the film when it is sung by a drag queen before a gay following. Valentin initially rejects it as middle-class escapism, also rejecting small comforts, like food, believing he must maintain strict discipline to keep from breaking down during the interrogation sessions. So when they are served disproportionate meals, one significantly larger than the other, he insists upon taking the smaller portion. When Molina gets drastically sick afterwards, the best way Valentin can offer moral support is to allow him to continue telling his movie, as a means to distract him from the pain. When he’s sent to the infirmary, however, we realize the food was poisoned with Valentin as the target. The warden is using Molina to get information from Valentin, suddenly altering the playing field, with both characters viewed differently afterwards. Dominating the screen time, viewers initially share in Molina’s dilemma, likely put-off initially by his exaggerated mannerisms, though over time he becomes more sympathetic, with the audience overlooking his crimes, viewing him more humanely, as his emotions are displayed for all to see, and while he’s overly self-centered, he’s also caring and considerate. When the poisoned food finally hits its target, Valentin is overcome with shame, refusing medical treatment, embarrassed and humiliated by a wretched case of diarrhea, though Molina is more than helpful in cleaning him up, which establishes a trust that wasn’t there before. The increasing misery of each character from the cyclical illness only accentuates the embellishments in the movie, like an antidote, intensifying a growing romance onscreen, with Molina, spinning his web of illusion, falling in love with Valentin, who can’t help falling into his trap. These parallels are measured contrasts that attempt to lure the audience into their private worlds, suddenly more open with one another, with darker forces remaining in the background.
Puig was not happy with Hurt’s performance, claiming “La Hurt is so bad she will probably win an Oscar,” which, of course is exactly what happened, the first man to win Best Actor for playing a homosexual, as Hollywood loves to reward itself, even in its most grotesque depictions of exaggeration and camp, but Cannes awarded him Best Actor as well. Through the passage of time, he seems terribly miscast in the role, feeling forced and pretentious, an opportunity missed for a gay actor, yet he likely helped increase the box office success of the film (increasing book sales as well). The provocative nature of the film starts to wear thin in the final portion, particularly the relationship with Molina and the warden, with Molina feigning visits from his mother, returning with shopping bags filled with goodies, where suddenly the two prisoners are dining like kings. One wonders what happened to that revolutionary discipline of Valentin, as suddenly he’s a softie, compromising at every turn, no longer a man on a mission fighting for his cause. It all gets muddled by the luxuriated surfaces of the Nazi movie, which thoroughly transfixes Molina, clueless to the original intent, failing to understand its true implications, leaving him lost in a no man’s land, as if stranded on a desert island. So he comes across on a completely different wavelength in the prison cell, waving treats and bonbons at Valentin, where his offered culinary delights are no answer to Valentin’s rage and anger in witnessing the horrid treatment of fellow prisoners. This barbaric human condition, mirrored by the Nazi’s, gets lost in the lurid storytelling of Molina’s imagination (with Braga playing three different roles), which dwarfs and overwhelms Valentin’s political views, with reality taking a back seat by the end of the film, though Babenco tries to integrate them together, each taking on characteristics of the other. Perhaps reflecting the futility of Marxist politicization in both Argentina, Brazil, and across South America, Valentin, much like the Communist Party itself, failed to comprehend the subversive quality of Molina’s exclusion from the status quo, as both are oppressed outcasts. Yet the Party failed to give a voice to exiled and persecuted gays, offering them no sanctuary, instead they were caught up in the same inflammatory machismo rhetoric that got them nowhere, even as both were seeking the same human value, freedom and dignity. With so much of this film caught up in delusional fantasy, any connection to real life becomes secondary, yet Valentin’s opinion of Molina changes drastically, eliminating accusations of being called a “faggot,” instead viewing him as a man with dignity, even willing to make love to him, with a shared kiss shattering any notion of what traditionally defines a man. But the sexual union comes across as an afterthought, as the world in 1985 was not yet ready for that, embroiled in an AIDS epidemic with people dying by the thousands, seemingly with no recourse, with Rock Hudson becoming the first high-profile fatality that very same year. Viewed as a queer milestone, filled with nostalgia and melodramatic excess, recalling Fassbinder’s LILI MARLENE (1981), the film is like a time capsule pastiche in honor of an era gone by, an homage to the glory years of Hollywood, a time when gays could fantasize about love and romance without compromise, yet the devastating reality of AIDS laid waste to that colorful gay fantasia, suffering a major setback, with gays disappearing from the mainstream for nearly a decade, their absence filled by Pedro Almodóvar, where this film is like a mirage in the desert, where freedom is only available through death or illusion.