A South American prison cell, and inside are two inmates, one a political prisoner who is often tortured to get information out of him that he refuses to disclose. He is Valentin (Raul Julia), and the beatings he undergoes are necessary if he wishes to keep his colleagues and more importantly to him, his girlfriend Marta (Sonia Braga) safe; he is a journalist whose conscience was raised by his reporting, but now he is behind bars he is more dedicated to the cause than he ever was. His cellmate, Luis (William Hurt), is a different matter, inside for “corrupting a minor” and a flamboyant gay man who loves to tell stories, in particular about his preferred entertainment, old black and white movies…
Kiss of the Spider Woman, whatever you thought of how Manuel Puig’s novel or how it was brought to the screen, was remarkable in not only actually existing but for what it achieved. It was one of the movies that proved independents were a viable force in the industry, for while it was a Brazilian film with a Brazilian director and crew, it was produced and funded by Americans, which was why it was made in English rather than one of the languages spoken in South America, though precisely where was kept obscure for reasons that were equally obscure on watching it (the source novel was Argentinian). Not only that, but the budget was extremely low, so much so that its two stars worked for a pittance to ensure it was completed.
And the subject matter in the uber-macho nineteen-eighties was not an obvious crowd pleaser, detailing as it did a relationship between a homosexual man and a straight one who comes around to his point of view, mentally as well as physically. For his performance, the straight Hurt won himself a Best Actor Oscar, regarded as a breakthrough then, as was the film’s nomination for Best Picture, though even with that acclaim translating into a healthy box office take, there were naysayers – not just those who objected to the lifestyle, but those actually in the lifestyle who had problems with what they saw as a stereotypically camp reading of the part, as if Hurt and company, including adapter Leonard Schrader, had resorted to caricature.
Although it could be said Kiss of the Spider Woman, both book and film, were products of their times, name one film that could not be said of, and the resistance to Hurt’s performance might well have been down to knowledge the actor was not homosexual himself. Originally it would have been Burt Lancaster in the role, and he did have bisexual tendencies, yet it’s difficult to imagine his larger than life personality being contained in what took place in the cell for much of the time, so it may have been best that he dropped out (either for artistic differences or heart trouble, perhaps both). Being aware that Hurt was acting was not quite the same as knowing Sandra Bullock was not a real astronaut, but oddly when Brokeback Mountain was released, featuring two straights playing gay, it did not face the same criticism.
That was probably down to them playing as masculine as possible, which might have been a choice of the stars not to mistake them for homosexuals, but Hurt remained oddly fascinating because of these contradictions, not in spite of them. He and Julia did not have a sex scene to take part in, but they did kiss, which was brave in the climate of the times with AIDS adding new, unnecessary stigma to gays, and it was true the film was far more interested in Luis’s sexuality than it was in Valentin’s political affiliations which remained a frustratingly non-specific left wing against the fascist machine vagueness. That Luis takes delight in telling of a film he once saw that was, as becomes clear, a romantic Nazi propaganda effort, at once summed up the power of dreams and escapism in the face of harsh reality, and also how in denial he was about the regime he was living under, and what he must leave behind if he wants any sort of redemption in Valentin’s eyes which grows increasingly important as the story draws on. Whether a heterosexual can be “turned” as easily as some reactionaries think a homosexual can remained an issue this was reluctant to face, and instead made it a gesture of acceptance, in itself progressive in a work that ultimately was positive, if in practice uncertain. Music by John Neschling.
[Curzon's Blu-ray looks fine, though the fantasy sequences of the movie within the movie appear oddly SD, and there are a load of extras to contend with, including a feature length documentary, trailer, other featurettes on Puig and the film's creation, and so on.]