For an art house succe s d'estime, Hector Babenco's "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is a deeply conservative movie, both in style and outlook. Worse, it's a bore, a flaccid gabfest from beginning to end that manages to both undermine politics and trivialize art.
Drawn from the Manuel Puig novel of the same name, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" takes place mostly in an Argentine prison cell. Arregui (Raul Julia) is a political prisoner, Molina (William Hurt) a homosexual who passes the time by "telling" an old movie to his cell mate. As Molina narrates, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" cuts to the movie-within-a-movie, a Nazi propaganda film that relates the tragedy of a chanteuse-cum-collaborator (Sonia Braga) scheming against the Resistance.
The movie-within-a-movie has a high-contrast glossiness, composed in sepia with hints of color; but as a parody, it doesn't have the resonance of, say, the movie Woody Allen crafted within "The Purple Rose of Cairo" -- it's just a vague spoof of melodrama generally. Like the flashbacks to Molina and Arregui's lives before prison, it's an attempt to open the movie up, to get us out of that cramped room. But it fails at that -- you're still stuck with a coupla white cats sittin' around talking.
At the same time, it undercuts the claustral atmosphere the telling of the movie depends on. In his novel, Puig conveys the prison's ambiance by omitting it. He tells his story almost wholly in dialogue, with the implication that nothing else ever changes, isn't worth describing; and by the end, the relentlessness of the dialogue itself becomes oppressive. For most of the book, you never actually leave the prison, but in the same scenes in the movie, you do. The flashbacks and the movie-within-a-movie become a relief you can rely on, so the prison never seems as confined as it has to.
So the told movie becomes purely thematic: Arregui stands for ethics, Molina for pure esthetics -- he can relish this Nazi drivel simply for its glamor. And the characters, as provided by screen writer Leonard Schrader, are thematic props as well. Molina can be summed up by an idea, and it's an ungenerous one -- that art is nothing more than an escape from reality. His life outside that idea is just a collection of pop psych notions about homosexuals (he's too attached to his mother, he's a masochist, and all the rest). Likewise, Arregui is nothing but a set of positions, giving Julia little to do but growl; deep-eyed and painfully thin, Julia brings all his charisma to the role, but he's pouring it down a sinkhole.
Schrader tries to weave some nuance into Arregui as the movie develops, but the revolutionary simply becomes another position -- Babenco and Schrader's own. Beaten, poisoned, burned, flayed and betrayed, he becomes a symbol for the inadequacies of politics. Change is impossible; the only solace in a cruel world is the pianissimo of personal life, the love between two people -- the affection that develops between Arregui and Molina means more than all the revolutions in the world.
Now, the merits of this doctrine are questionable at best, but the real problem with "Kiss of the Spider Woman" goes beyond its stance. It's a glossy production with big-name stars and acknowledgments in the credits to big-time agents, permeated with Hollywoody "prestige." The mechanics of the plot are contrived, with an unerring eye for the sentimental -- for all the beatings, there isn't a hint of real danger in the movie. Stagily artificial, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" lacks the edge of realism that would allow it to comment on the situation from inside.
So then why have audiences been queuing like Soviets in a ration line to see it? Partly, it's the message -- by filtering the trendy politics of Latin America through an apolitical lens, it allows you to feel engage' without ever risking anything.
And despite its stuttering pace (over two hours, it always seems to be about to end), the audience also responds to "Kiss of the Spider Woman" as entertainment, which means, primarily, they are responding to Hurt. Hurt is different from other actors, but he's never different from himself -- he's got surprisingly little range. His whole shtick consists of the contrary way he plays with the speed and emphasis of his line readings, racing when he should slow down, sliding through the periods in his sentences. His me'tier is the bully -- he's incomparable at playing contempt -- but the role of Molina doesn't play to that strength.
Decked in silk robes, his hair swept back past his collar in a lank shag, his body sleek as a seal's, Hurt looks effeminate enough, but if there's something unique about the homosexual sensibility (and for Puig, at least, there is), he never finds it. The characterization is as superficial as the henna in his hair; and while the swishiness is underplayed, it's the swishiness that audiences respond to, the extravagant theatrics of a homosexual caricature.
Ultimately, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is just another gay minstrel show that excuses itself with a pretense of dignity and weighty themes. It's no different, really, from "La Cage aux Folles," tailor-made for precisely the Broadway audience that is eating it up.