''KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN'' begins with a theatrical-sounding homosexual describing the plot of an old movie (''her petite ankle slips into the perfumed water'') for the benefit of his prison cellmate, a political radical. There is nothing in this seemingly frivolous, beautifully staged opening to betray the film's tremendous reserves of seriousness and passion. Nor are there sufficient clues in the previous film careers of the director, Hector Babenco (the highly praised ''Pixote''), or the two stars, William Hurt and Raul Julia, to anticipate the stature of the work they do here. ''Kiss of the Spider Woman'' is a brilliant achievement for all of them, staged with the perfect control and fierce originality that make it one of the best films in a long while.
Mr. Hurt won a well-deserved best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for a performance that is crafty at first, carefully nurtured, and finally stirring in profound, unanticipated ways. What starts out as a campy, facetious catalogue of Hollywood trivia becomes an extraordinarily moving film about manhood, heroism and love. As Luis Molina, the storyteller who keeps his cellmate Valentin Arregui entertained with pulp movie fiction, Mr. Hurt is first seen wrapping a red towel around his head as a turban, the better to impersonate the female star of the film he is describing. The red scarf he ties around his neck in the climactic sequence is both a reminder of his earlier character and a sign of the completeness of his transformation.
''Kiss of the Spider Woman,'' which opens today at Cinema I, has been adapted by Leonard Schrader from Manuel Puig's unusually structured novel with an imaginativeness that amounts to absolute fidelity. The book, which contains no physical description whatsoever and establishes its characters entirely through what they think and say, intermingles dialogue between the cellmates, footnotes referring obliquely to their psychological makeup, and the lengthy recapitulations of movie plots that punctuate their conversation. All of these things manage somehow to form a seamless narrative, one that has been made even more so on the screen.
The initial disparity between Valentin and Molina (as they address one another) becomes a dichotomy between superficiality and seriousness. Molina is quite literally a window dresser who has been jailed for molesting minors, whereas Valentin is a political prisoner. Valentin tells Molina, ''Your life is as trivial as your movies''; Molina replies, ''Unless you have the keys to that door, I will escape in my own way, thank you.'' Mr. Puig typically couches the debate between them in mundane, even homey terms. When Molina offers his cellmate some extra food, Valentin snaps, ''I can't afford to get spoiled.'' Molina argues that one must take what life offers. Valentin replies self-righteously that what life offers him is his cause, and that its nobility makes everything secondary. ''What kind of a cause is that,'' asks the sly Molina, ''a cause that won't let you eat an avocado?''
The grace with which the film establishes the growing affection between these two, a fondness that tempers their ideological dispute to the point at which they understand one another completely, is given an element of suspense by the possibility of Molina's treachery. It is this that makes Mr. Hurt's performance so exquisitely poised. When his face sags, sick with fear, during a telephone conversation late in the story, the extent of his earlier artifice becomes visibly apparent. Before that, his Molina is by turns coy, flirty, confessional and entertaining, offering only the tiniest indications of where his true loyalties may lie. His face, for all its quicksilver changes of expression, remains essentially opaque. Only gradually do his actions - this is a film that manages to derive a scene of astonishing tenderness from one character's violent indigestion -begin to override his histrionics. Mr. Hurt also succeeds in making the campy, flamboyant aspects of Molina's homosexuality seem credible and metaphorical in equal measure.
If Mr. Hurt has never been so daringly extroverted on the screen before, Mr. Julia has never been so restrained. And they meet halfway in a manner that is electrifying. Their teamwork, choreographed with a relentless, escalating rhythm by Mr. Babenco, never falters, which is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it is frequently interrupted. Several films-within-the-film, illustrating Molina's movie descriptions and starring the Brazilian actress Sonia Braga as a satirically elegant grande dame, serve as refracted images of the main action, couching the larger film's concerns with love and honor in witty, deliberately cliched terms. Mr. Babenco, whose tough, unsparing ''Pixote'' was so impressive, weaves all these elements together in ways that reveal whole new reserves of precision, sophistication and even humor.Continue reading the main story
Kiss Of The Spider Woman Summary
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Kiss of the Spider Woman,a novel written by Manuel Puig (1976), is unusual in that there is no narrative voice, typically a primary feature of fiction. It was adapted into a stage play in 1983, an Academy Award-winning film in 1985, and a Broadway musical in 1993. Major themes include social criticism, fantasy and escapism; homosexuality; social constructs; challenging the definition of literature; ambiguity and uncertainty; self-analysis; and personal desires vs. political duties.
The novel follows the conversations and relationship between two cellmates in an Argentine prison. The first, Valentin Arregui Paz, is known primarily as Valentin, and the second, Luis Alberto Molina, is called Molina. Valentin is somber, while Molina is much more open and sociable. The beginning of the novel details moments of conflict, and the reader understands that the two have opposing views on many things.
Molina suggests he retell the story of a film he once saw, to pass the time. Valentin agrees to listen. Molina tells the story of a woman who is afraid she will morph into a panther, and one day she does, after suspecting her husband is having an affair. Valentin interjects occasionally with his own cynical, skeptical opinions about the characters and the story.
Molina later tells another story. Valentin finds it offensive because it is clearly propaganda. A young French woman in occupied France falls in love with a Nazi Lieutenant during World War II. Valentin says he is only interested in the story as an example of propaganda, but clearly wants to know what happens to the characters. One day, Molina falls ill, and continues the story to distract himself from the pain. The French woman is brave, and tries to help her love capture rebel forces, but she is mortally wounded. The story finishes, and the two men fall asleep.
Molina is still ill the next day, but Valentin ignores him. Molina tells himself a story. A young man and his fiancé go to a house in the woods with an ugly maidservant, where they plan to live. However, the man is wounded in war, and brutally disfigured. He ends up moving back into the cabin alone, only to fall in love with the young maid. The two, through the power of love, are transformed and made beautiful in each other’s eyes.
The next day, the two men have let go of their tense feelings, but now Valentin is ill. Molina tells another story. A young man supports a South American country’s revolution, even though he lives in Europe. His father is kidnapped by the guerrillas the son supports. The son attempts rescue, but his father is killed.
Valentin, fearing being sent to the infirmary if he asks to use the bathroom, has an accident in the cell. Molina helps him. Valentin admits the truth about a woman, Marta, he had previously described as his girlfriend. He fell in love with her years ago but is no longer in contact with her.
Valentin’s current girlfriend is also a rebel, and sends a letter about a comrade’s death. Again, Valentin has an accident, and Molina helps him. Valentin breaks down at the death of his friend and fellow rebel, then sleeps. Molina finishes his story himself. The son’s mother was an instrument to his father’s murder, and he loses his mind. He kills her and her lover, and tries to kill the guerrillas.
A conversation between Molina and the prison warden reveals that Molina is a spy, and is trying to glean information from Valentin. The illnesses were from poisoned food, and Molina convinces the warden to give him good food. Molina shares the food with the now awake Valentin, and begins another story, about a woman finding out her new husband uses zombies on his plantation. Valentin has a fit, and destroys some of Molina’s food. Molina asks the warden for permission to lie to Valentin even more, saying he will be pardoned, and the warden agrees.
Valentin apologises, and Molina forgives him. He says he is very sad about his upcoming pardon, and Valentin goes to him to offer some comfort. The two make love.
The next morning, Molina begins another story. A young, wealthy woman and a journalist fall in love. Later, he tells the warden he has no new information, and the warden says he will release him the next morning. Molina finishes the story with Valentin, and the journalist dies. The two men make love again, and Molina agrees to contact Valentin’s comrades to pass on a message.
Molina’s activities after release are as follows: he tries to contact the rebels, only to be gunned down by a passing car, most likely rebels anticipating being arrested and tortured. In the final chapter, Valentin is given morphine by a prison doctor, after being tortured badly. He drifts into unconsciousness, dreaming of seeing Marta once more.