Welcome to the post-Oscar lull. Hopefully, by now, everyone has seen The Lego Movie and The Wind Rises, which are basically the only movies that are worth seeing that are playing in Nanaimo right now. As is always the case of being a movie-goer in a city that never gets the movies you want to see right away, it’s time to revisit some classics.
By now, everyone has probably heard the controversy being stirred over Jared Leto winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a transwoman in Dallas Buyers’ Club. While it’s still up for debate whether or not a transgender actor should have played the role instead, it’s interesting to witness this trend of the Oscars giving awards to talented, straight actors for playing roles that are either transgender or homosexual. Kiss of the Spider Woman was the first to start this in ‘86, when William Hurt became the first actor to win an acting award for portraying a sexuality/gender that was not his own.
Kiss of the Spider Woman tells the story of two cell mates being held in a Buenos Aires prison in the mid-1970s. Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia) is a freedom fighter who is captured, tortured, and then thrown in a cell with Luis Molina (William Hurt), a cross-dressing homosexual (he is most likely a transwoman, but as a sign of the times he is just referred to as homosexual) being held in prison for charges of having sex with an underage boy. Although apprehensive to talk about anything with Molina, Valentin slowly warms up to him as he helps nurse Valentin back to good health.
During their time in the cell together, Molina recounts a film he remembers seeing to help pass the time (which is broken up into parts and spread throughout almost the whole film). He never says the name, but it’s about a woman in Paris who falls in love with a German officer during the invasion. She eventually helps him fight the resistance but is shot to death in his arms at the end. It’s quite clearly a Nazi propaganda film, which angers Valentin, but Molina insists on continuing to tell the story because he loves the emotions portrayed in it as it helps him “escape in [his] own way.”
What makes this film within the film so interesting is how you start to think about it when Molina tells Valentin “I don’t explain my movies; it ruins the emotion.”
Although it was originally a novel written by Argentinean author Manuel Puig, it takes on a different tone when shown through the medium of film. It’s as if director Hector Babenco is trying to make a statement on the shallowness of modern romance films since analysis is the bane of any critic’s enjoyment of an “emotional” film. This would be a fairly arrogant statement to make if this was a shallow movie as well. Thankfully, it isn’t.
After saving Valentin’s life a couple times, Molina is set to go on parole and reveals through tears to Valentin that he is in love with him. Valentin is sad not to share the cell with his new friend anymore, but convinces him that life outside of prison is much better. On the final night of Molina’s stay in prison, Valentin makes love to him in a show of immense gratitude for everything that Molina has done for him. On paper, this might sound like an awkward situation to swallow, but the tremendous acting and character building makes the act feel very genuine. Molina really does do a lot for Valentin, and as their respect for each other grows, you can see the camaraderie surpass the superficial borders of sexuality. What is great about this is that the hyper-romantic nature of this love echoes back to an era of over-dramatized love in film (like the one that Molina narrates in the cell throughout the movie), except this one isn’t as shallow and its objective presentation juxtaposes the forceful subjectivity of the propaganda film.
The film really only needs to be watched for the great performances, but the way in which the story is revealed is very graceful. We are inserted into the cell at the beginning, with Molina beginning to describe the propaganda film, and are given little context as to who these characters are or why they are here. As they exchange their stories with each other, we learn about their backstories at the same time as the other one does. The Nazi film is presented well too, as the film cuts between Molina pantomiming about the cell and describing the film, and then cutting back to the film while he’s still describing it. The shallowness of this side film is made even more absurd through its purposefully poor directing and acting. Characters gasp over-dramatically, and the sound is so obviously post-synchronized that it’s laughable. Despite how bad that film is, you can imagine how its ridiculous nature would help someone have some escapism while being held in prison.
Despite this film coming out in ‘86, representation of transgender people in film still has a long way to go. Although not limited to these films, the most famous portrayals of transfolk have been in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013), which coincidently have all had straight actors win Oscars for playing those roles. It’s hard not to see the bias occurring here, and although I thoroughly enjoy the performances present in all of these films, the film industry and general movie-goers need to join the 21st century.
In a world buried in generally unremarkable romance films, it’s easy to get caught up in the novelty of homosexual and transgender romantic films and their portrayals in film. We’ve already seen this happen with the very remarkable Blue is the Warmest Colour, which probably drew a significant crowd of heterosexual males just wanting to see some attractive lesbians have sex; at least they got a genuinely good movie out of it. Perhaps one day we can look back on these films and just call them romances.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is a beautiful and great film to help fill in the gap between now and when the next stream of new and promising films come to Nanaimo.