Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

In the wake of the 88th Academy Awards we’ve arbitrarily decided to revisit the Year in Film of three decades ago, reviewing a selection of films that were either honored at the 58th Oscars, snubbed, or overlooked altogether. Out of Africa was the major winner that year, scooping up seven trophies, but of course the question everyone always asks after the Best Picture mic drops is whether or not the winner is deserving. Spotlight, more of a traditional cinematic experience than the likes of The Revenant, was a mild surprise to don this year’s crown. If we dispense with the niceties, we might say that Spotlight — though undoubtedly a strong film about a powerful true tale, well-crafted, well-acted, well-received — simply isn’t a cinematic experience on par with Revenant. And if we did the same 30 years ago we might find a similar scenario with Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Every once in a while a movie rears its head from the past and simply begins, production credits appearing and giving way to the title, the opening credits, the first scene, and off to the races. Nowadays it’s far more common to preface all of that with casting news, screener reviews, trailers, trailers for the next trailers, interviews with the stars wherein the plot of the movie is dissected before the film is even released, etc. Rarely do we get to experience a movie as is, shorn of all the machinery. For me, Kiss of the Spider Woman was one such rarity. I knew the title and knew that William Hurt won an Oscar for his role, and that’s it. Hitting play was in the grandest sense a leap into an unknown territory of infinite possibility, even if in the quotidian sense it was just something to do on a lazy late Wednesday evening.

But it’s somewhat of a brilliant film to go into blind, and that brilliance is only solidified further as the movie progresses. The first ten minutes is a whirling, fast-paced dreamscape that manages to introduce our central characters while simultaneously refusing to delve into story at all. It’s an impressionistic approach that makes the movie seem untethered, as if the entire thing will just be William Hurt reciting a strange story of a forbidden love in faraway and long-ago Europe. It’s a unique and bold beginning to a movie, one undoubtedly amplified if you effectively know nothing about the film going into it. Why are we being told this love story? Why is William Hurt telling it? Who is the man next to him providing commentary? Is the “A” storyline of Kiss set in the drab prison cell or the sepia city — and which story is which?

Kiss unfolds like an origami flower, petal by petal, and once it’s fully bloomed the petals revealed earlier look all the more beautiful for being a part of the whole. William Hurt’s Molina and Raul Julia’s Valentín are classically opposed at the start of the film, the latter being a cross-dressing gay man (sorry, Molina: woman) and the former being the macho manly man. Molina’s imprisoned for “corrupting a young boy” while Valentín is a revolutionary political prisoner. Their respective pasts are as different as the futures they each strive for. They couldn’t be more different, and we learn in a variety of ways the challenges of understanding between the two.

But a buddy movie this ain’t. Take two diametrically opposed men or women and they’re almost certainly going to be chums by film’s end; take one of each, man and woman, and they’ll likely be lovers. Molina and Valentín develop a friendship, sure, but it’s one founded on respect rather than intrigue. That’s interesting for the fact alone of Molina being a gay man, as a lesser film would easily cede the ultimate connection between the two to the love Molina has for Valentín. Maybe the lack of adventure helps to separate this pairing from the likes of Butch and Sundance or Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. There would seem to be fewer antics to be had — pretty hard to go on a spontaneous road trip while you’re in an Argentinian prison — and yet Molina and Valentín manage some escapism all the same.

The next-level flourish comes with the realization that Valentín doesn’t want to escape, at least not in the way Molina does. Most buddy pairings — take Thunderbolt and Lightfoot — reach an agreement on points like this. Thunderbolt couldn’t possibly share Lightfoot’s carefree demeanor until, of course, he sort of does. People rub off on each other.

Or, wait. Do they? Isn’t that a massive simplification? Molina and Valentín reach a supreme respect, but one doesn’t readily become the other. They adopt none of each other’s viewpoints. In one of the film’s best scenes a violently ill Valentín is suddenly unable to control his bowels, and Molina leaps into action to disrobe his sickly cellmate and clean up the mess. Hurt has never been better, displaying his kindness without a trace of arrogance or disgust, and Julia is transfixing as well in his most frail and shaken state. This might be the height of their shared adventure, pathetic as that may be. Butch/Sundance and Thunderbolt/Lightfoot get heists and shootouts, Molina and Valentín get a pair of soiled trousers. It’s a clear peak in the friendship between the men and it stems from an abdominal pain.

Again, the brilliance of Kiss of the Spider Woman is in the unfolding, in learning that the scene described above wasn’t just a standalone vignette. We saw the creation of that scene and we just didn’t realize it; we learn later both the motivations and the implications of Molina’s kindness. Petals on a flower. While Out of Africa might have wooed the Academy with its sprawling storyline and epic scenery, Kiss of the Spider Woman is by far the more unique cinematic experience. But perhaps it’s actually better that it didn’t take home all the glory at that ceremony thirty years ago. Some films are better when they sneak up on you, so maybe around the time of the 118th Oscars in 2045 someone will encounter The Revenant with the same glorious lack of context. Both that film and Kiss of the Spider Woman are filled to the brim with peculiar cinematic power, but perhaps even more so if it’s power you don’t see coming.

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