Cult Cinema: Kiss of the Spider Woman

Here's our review of the 1985 film, Kiss of the Spider Woman.

"What's wrong?
Everyone loves hugs!"
Most viewers probably remember Raul Julia from 'The Addams Family' as Gomez Addams, or as General M. Bison from his infamous final film, “Street Fighter.” Upon further research, however, you will stumble across this little independent gem from 1985, “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” It garnered William Hurt an Oscar for best supporting actor, as well as nabbing nominations for best picture, director and adapted screenplay.

Based on Argentinian author Manuel Puig's 1976 novel of the same name (eventually re-adapted as a Broadway musical in 1993,) it tells the story of two men locked in a Brazilian prison when the military was in control of the country's central government. Raul Julia plays Valentin, a political prisoner who finds himself in constant danger both in and out of his cell from the Brazilian secret police. Accompanying him in his cell is Luis (William Hurt), a gay child sex offender who passes the time musing about a wartime romantic melodrama, which also happens to be a Nazi propaganda film. Luis is working against Valentin in the beginning, but as the film cuts between the silly melodrama recounted by Luis and the harsh reality of the cellmates' prison environment, an unlikely friendship begins to form between the two.
Raul Julia is strong as the tough, no-nonsense political prisoner, but it’s William Hurt who steals the show as the androgynous, effeminate Luis, prancing about the cell dressed in drag as something of a self-made Hollywood starlet. Beneath the facade of makeup and womanly gestures is a prisoner in his own skin, forever on the outside looking in at society. Much like 'Of Mice and Men' and 'Midnight Cowboy,' 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' is a tale of human compassion and kindness transcending the boundaries of oppression while providing a testament to the hope that escapism can provide to the spirit.

"I can't believe Street Fighter
will be my last movie either!"
Though Valentin and Luis are well aware of the immoral political context in Luis' repeatedly recounted melodrama, the story of love overcoming all odds is at once universal and inextricably linked to the paths that their own lives will take. The film within a film, retold by Luis' recollections, are designed with loving care to match all the lighting techniques, overplayed performances and corny dialogue, and it gradually begins to echo the realities of both prisoners as they find themselves in situations not far away from the plot line of the melodrama. While Valentin's political history paints a picture exceeding the scope of his prison cell, the film largely remains inside the confines of the cell, lending a vague sense of claustrophobia while hinting at the limitless possibilities of escaping within. Primarily boiled down to Valentin and Luis, 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' at times feels like a stage play with one major set-piece behind the squalid prison bars before cutting away to the splendor of melodrama. 
A testament to the power of imagination, the importance of fantasy, and how friendship, love and even joy can exist in the most dour of places, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a unique and touching human drama displaying how the power of the human spirit can transcend oppression. No matter how much Valentin is beaten by prison guards or how much the system tries to manipulate Luis into extracting something from Valentin, the two have a bond and genuine love for cinematic escapism no outside force can take away from them. Although reality has different plans gradually closing in on the two, at least they can dream of their favorite movie's happy ending.

-Andrew Kotwicki