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Kiss of the Spider Woman (film)

December 10, 2016

kotsw-filmIncluded among the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, edited by Steven Schneider.

Having read the novel, we realized very little was omitted from the movie, though some say that it’s “not like the book.” It lacks the tenderness between the two men which occurs in the book. However, the camp and stylised ending is such as Molina would have loved.

We wondered if the movie was ‘real’. I wasn’t but was made for inserting into this film, as the age of its actors testify.

The film begins, not unlike Un Chant d’Amour (Jean Genet’s classic, homoerotic, 1950 prison short), with the camera fixed on the wall of their jailhouse cell. We hear Molina’s voice, rapturously describing the star of his movie. “She’s not a woman like all the others,” he utters, along with the assertion that she is waiting for a “real man” like none she has ever met before. A circular camera pan slowly reveals the setting; we see the prison bars, a clothesline with feminine garments, pictures of glamorous movie stars on the wall, and finally Molina – wrapping a towel around his head to suggest a turban. He is dressed in a kimono, his feet, lady-like, step gracefully across the floor as he mimes the heroine stepping into her bath. Molina is exotic and sensual, and completely out of place in the grim prison setting.

The film version is, in many ways, more accessible than the original novel. The film is more tightly constructed because Molina tells the stories of several different movies in the book, beginning with Val Lewton’s classic 1942 Cat People. Only one of these films was emphasized in the movie and that was the Nazi film, whose central theme of betrayal mirrors Molina and Valentin’s situation, making Spider Woman a model of effective film adaptation. It’s easy to lose interest in Molina’s long monologues when reading the book; in the film his monologues come to life when illustrated by those campy clips.

Hector Babenco agonized all through rehearsals over how William Hurt would ever find the gay character in himself. To help Hurt tackle the part, and because author Manuel Puig was not available, Babenco put him with Patricio Bisso, who was set to play the small role of Molina’s friend Greta and design the film’s costumes. Bisso is gay, had been in jail himself, and was close to his mother, like Molina in many ways. Hurt toured Sao Paulo with him, often visiting gay cinemas, looking for clues to the character. Bisso got fed up translating the films for him and started making up the stories instead. Bisso later said Hurt used him as a “sacrificial lamb” for his process, playing cat and mouse games with him to get a sense of how Molina would react in similar circumstances. During one such session, Hurt took Bisso to a nice restaurant, but Bisso couldn’t eat because Hurt’s prodding and game-playing had made him cry.

Vito Russo was very critical of Kiss Of The Spider Woman in The Celluloid Closet and so were many other queer reviewers. Most of their criticisms however aren’t valid unless, like them, you refuse to see the film as anything but just another portrayal of a stereotypical screaming queen who dies in the last reel. Yes, Molina does die at the end, in much the same way as the heroine of the Nazi film, but it is all too probable that he won’t be alone and that Valentin will share the same fate. For that reason, it’s unfair to lump Spider Woman in the same category as an overblown, homophobic melodrama like Reflections In A Golden Eye. Besides, don’t most of Shakespeare’s leading men bite the dust in the last act too?

Kiss Of The Spider Woman was a radical, almost subversive, film on its first release as it explored concepts of gender roles and the question of what it ultimately means to be a man during a time when Rambo was the established norm of hyper-masculinity on the silver screen. Ponder too what it was like to watch two men kiss – not a common sight in a mainstream film during the 1980s. Kiss Of The Spider Woman broke much new ground and it still holds up today as one queer cinema’s milestones.

The movie Kiss of the Spider Woman deviates from Manuel Puig’s book in some very important ways that change the entire feel of the story.  Firstly, in the movie it is initially obvious what the setting and the characters are because the viewer can see the jail cell and see Molina and Valentin talking.  There are even scenes outside the cell and also scenes where Molina and Valentin see other prisoners.  The book takes a far more subtle approach opening with a description of a movie, but the reader does not even know what is being described.  Nothing is outright said in the book until chapter eight when the format deviates from Molina and Valentin’s dialogue to prisoner descriptions.  Knowing and understanding what is going on from the outset in the movie changes the mystery and confusion and ultimately does not allow the viewer to understand Molina and Valentin’s emotions and motivations in the same way.

Another important deviation is that in the movie version Molina only tells one film to Valentin — the Nazi propaganda one.  In the book he tells Valentin around five.  The story of political violence seemed to strike a chord with Valentin which may explain why that story was the one told, but cutting out the panther woman story negatively affected Molina’s characterization.  The panther woman, and his identification with her, helps the reader understand who Molina is and without that his character development in the movie lacked.

The cell block scenes were filmed in a prison that had been shut down. Scenes outside the prison were filmed on location in Sao Paulo.

kotsw-film-2Luis Molina: The nicest thing about feeling happy is that you think you’ll never be unhappy again.

[first lines] Luis Molina: She’s… well, she’s something a little strange. That’s what she noticed, that she’s not a woman like all the others. She seems all wrapped up in herself. Lost in a world she carries deep inside her.

[last lines]  Valentin Arregui: I love you so much. That’s the one thing I never said to you, because I was afraid of losing you forever.

Marta: That can never happen now. This dream is short, but this dream is happy.

Luis Molina: No matter how lonely she may be she keeps men at a distance.

Valentin Arregui: She’s probably got bad breath or something.

Valentine Arregui: You only know the reality that was stuck up your ass!

Luis Molina: Why should I think about reality in this stink hole? That’s like “Why should I get more depressed that I already am?”.

Valentine Arregui: You’re worse than I thought! Do you use these movies to jerk yourself off?

Luis Molina: [Crying] If you don’t stop, I will never speak to you again!

Valentin Arregui: Stop crying! You sound just like an old woman!

Luis Molina: [Whimpering] It’s what I am! It’s what I am!

Valentin Arregui: [Forcing Molina’s legs apart] What’s this between your legs, huh? Tell me, “lady”!

Luis Molina: It’s an accident. If I had the courage, I’d cut it off.


Luis Molina: This girl’s finished.

Valentin Arregui: What girl?

Luis Molina: Me, stupid!

Valentin Arregui: Molina, you would never understand.

Luis Molina: What I understand is me offering you a bit of my lovely avocado and you throw it back in my face.

Valentin Arregui: Don’t talk like that! You’re just like a…

Luis Molina: A what? Go on, say it. [Arregui pauses]

Valentin Arregui: [to Molina] Shaddap! You damn faggot!

Valentin: ”Your life is as trivial as your movies”

Molina: ”Unless you have the keys to that door, I will escape in my own way, thank you.”

Valentin: ”I can’t afford to get spoiled.”

Molina: ”What kind of a cause is that, a cause that won’t let you eat an avocado?”-

You’re not cold taking your clothes off?

– How good you look . . .

– Ah . . .

– Molina . . .

– What?

– Nothing . . . I’m not hurting you?

– No . . . Ow yes, that way, yes.

Secret Policeman: [to Molina] You faggot piece of shit! You fell in love with that bastard?

Valentin Arregui: [Violently separating Molina’s legs] What’s this between your legs, eh? Tell me, “lady”!

Luis Molina: It’s an accident. If I had the courage I’d cut it off.

Valentin Arregui: You’d still be a man. A MAN! A man in prison! Just like the faggots the Nazis shoved in the ovens!

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From → Film, Sexuality

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