Saturday, March 14, 2020
Héctor Babenco | O Beijo da Mulher Aranha (Kiss of the Spider Woman)
the webs we weave
Leonard Schrader (screenplay), Héctor Babenco (director) O Beijo da Mulher Aranha (Kiss of the Spider Woman) / 1985
It’s nearly impossible to even begin to describe a film made by Argentine-Brazilian heterosexual director Héctor Babenco, based on a novel by the gay Argentine writer Manual Puig, staring a many-times married British actor John Hurt as an effeminate gay man opposite a Puerto Rican macho political figure, played by an apparently gay man, Raúl Julia, set in a Brazilian prison during that country’s dictatorship, while being based on the terrible Argentine dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo, with a script by American writer Leonard Schrader.
If you’re getting a bit confused let me just add that the role of that effeminate gay man was originally to have been performed by the macho US superstar Burt Lancaster, who was rumored, according to the Wikipedia article on Kiss of the Spider Woman—unknown to me until writing this piece—to have been a notable Hollywood crossdresser!
Let me just add that the films Molina describes to his beloved fellow prisoner, Valentin, are based centrally on Nazi propaganda films and those of his own imagination—particularly the title film about the Spider Woman—while he himself has been arrested for pedophilic sex and is offered freedom only if he succeeds to get secret information from his would-be lover.
And if your head’s still spinning, let me just add that most of Puig’s works were brought into English by the remarkable lesbian translator Suzanne Jill Levine (whose translation of José Donoso’s Hell Has No Limits both of my presses also published). The webs this “spider woman” weaved were terribly complex, and evidently woven so deeply that all those involved simply could not escape the ties that bound them.
Lancaster is listed as one of the producers since his age at the time forced him to bow out of the performance he desired to undertake. I wish he had; it might have been as utterly fascinating as his Felix Happer role in Local Hero or his Prince Don Fabrizio Salina performance in The Leopard. I believe Lancaster was one of the most underrated of Hollywood stars.
The publicity and commentary on this 1985 film, moreover, is highly unreliable, most of them simply suggesting that the two oppositional prisoners—the one a true loving, but passive humanist, the other a terribly caring, but active, political figure—“form a bond,” or, even worse, “become friends.” Yes, they do both of those things, but far more importantly, the come together into a sexual relationship: in short, they fuck. This happens, not just in prisons, but every day life, everywhere when a macho being releases him or herself into sexual same-sex ecstasy, when men and women suddenly realize that they are not limited by the sexual decrees of the society at large.
Molina’s kindness, his protectiveness, seductiveness, and self-serving tendencies finally break through the wall of the true believer and, yes they become friends, they bond, and finally they fuck, even able to share a deep kiss as Molina is released in order to further torture the man with whom he has now fallen in love.
Given the clear brutality of the government which surrounds them—the true spiders which encase their lives—we already know the result. Desperately in love with the only man who seems to fit his endless impatient “Waiting, waiting and waiting…for a real man” the weaker Molina is even willing to join the political underground for that intense momentary kiss.
It is, of course, the kiss of death, yet simultaneously that kiss, a bit like Snow White, brings him back to life, to commitment, to a fire in his stomach that will surely kill him but turn himself into that “real man” for which he has so long sought. Even the macho Valentin demands of him, as they part, to no longer accept the homophobic abuse he has previously suffered.
In the end, ironically—a word that does not any longer seem to have much meaning—the previously uncommitted, now believer is killed not by the evil right followers but by the left figures to which he is attempting to provide information. In Puig’s vision there are no real heroes. Valentin himself was a modest political figure, hiding out in his girlfriend Marta’s wealthy bourgeois home. It seems to me now that he, not Molina, was the “Spider Woman,” someone involving people into his own well-meaning, but not very thought-out intentions.
Once shot, Molina dies slowly, falling to his knees after a long perception that he has been killed, refusing to reveal anything to anyone. We don’t know what his still-imprisoned and terribly tortured cell-mate has revealed. A hospital assistant illegally shoots him up with morphine, which, if nothing else allows him visions of his beautiful, lost lover, Marta, as they cross the perfect pond of water together—an illusion that might never even be allowed in Molina’s more visceral and painful vision of the cinematic world, where women were cruel, and men so, so very seductive.
Maybe, just maybe, in describing all the films I have discussed, I have become a kind of Molina, a spider-man who cannot totally break out of the web I myself have constructed.
Los Angeles, March 14, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).