Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

Director: Hector Babenco                                 Writer: Leonard Schrader
Film Score: John Neschling                              Cinematography: Rodolfo Sánchez
Starring: William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga and José Lewgoy

Based on the novel by Argentinian author Manuel Puig and filmed by Brazilian--though Argentine born--director Hector Babenco, Kiss of the Spider Woman is a fascinating character study of two men in prison, fused with the movie within a movie that gives the film its title. I’ve always loved films that reference films themselves, from Singin’ in the Rain to The Artist. Babenco’s original choice to play the aging queen eventually played by William Hurt was Burt Lancaster. Lancaster surprised the entire production team by agreeing. Babenco wrote a screenplay in Portuguese, and then began to work with Leonard Schrader, the brother of Paul Schrader, on an English version. But Schrader was a slow, meticulous writer, and in his impatience Lancaster began working on a script himself. Meanwhile Raul Julia signed on instantly and was approved by Lancaster. Raul Julia’s agent was also William Hurt’s agent, however, and when Lancaster’s script called for a Some Like It Hot type transvestite in the lead role, he was dropped from the production. But it took Hurt and Julia agreeing to a percentage rather than a salary to allow the film to go ahead.

The story begins with William Hurt’s stilted dialogue, inside a South American jail cell. He’s talking about a movie, describing a woman, describing himself. As the camera pans across the jail cell there are photos and colorful clothing, cosmetics and colored towels, ironically mirroring his detailed description. Hurt wraps a towel around his head, wearing a flowered robe, a gay man unembarrassed by who he is even in captivity. Then the camera passes Raul Julia, lying in his bunk, face turned toward the wall, warning Hurt to stay away from erotic descriptions. Then the scene cuts to the sepia tones of the old movie Hurt is describing, Sonia Braga as the star. Julia is a political prisoner, badly beaten, and hasn’t the slightest interest in the film, but it helps to pass the time. Quickly, however, he discovers it’s a Nazi propaganda film about World War Two and the connection with his own fascist foes infuriates him. But as the relationship between the two men develops, the Nazi film takes on a symbolic role in the film that is quite unexpected. Sonia Braga not only plays the star of Hurt’s film, she also takes on the role of the woman Julia was in love with when he tells his story to Hurt.

The thing that always seemed strange to me about this film was the casting of William Hurt as the gay prisoner. While he’s never seemed the model of macho, he certainly doesn’t come off as a convincing gay, and yet he won the Oscar that year for actor in a leading role. He really is much more effective, however, when he’s not trying to be effeminate. Then there’s Raul Julia. Every time I see him onscreen it brings to mind the tragedy of his early death and the end of a brilliant career. There’s a real mystery behind his eyes that he brings to all his roles, a depth of character that is never shown but feels huge beneath the surface. Sonia Braga does some nice work as well, playing multiple parts. The Nazi film is heavily stylized, as it is meant to reflect not the actual film but Hurt’s remembrance of it. In the segment with Julia before his arrest, she is brooding and intense, very real. It’s a strange film, an independent film that was made before the independent film community even existed. Fascinating in a way, it’s not something I turn to often. For me, it’s a surreal fantasy of a film, even the jail sequences, that is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Ultimately, Kiss of the Spider Woman transcends the time period in which it was made and provides a unique, one of a kind film experience.

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