Kiss of the Spider Woman is one weird movie, but it’s also about as complex and intriguing as a film can be. It takes place almost entirely in a tiny South American prison cell, and focuses on the interaction between two inmates. Luis (William Hurt) is a gay man imprisoned for corrupting a minor, and Valentin (Raul Julia) is a political revolutionary doing time for his involvement in an unnamed resistance movement. The men couldn’t be more different, but their lives are bound to become inextricably intertwined. Watching the story unfold is a lot like watching a spider spinning a web, and as lovely as that may be, you’re always aware that someone is going to get all tangled up and die in it.
In some ways, the pacing of Kiss of the Spider Woman mimics a prison term. There’s nowhere to go and nothing else to do, so you pass the time in whatever ways you can. There is little urgency in the first third of the movie, and it lulls you into complacency. Luis describes various movies (all full of passionate romance, betrayal, and intrigue) and Valentin listens with a combination of disgust and enjoyment. In his mind the leading lady is always played by his one true love (Sonia Braga), and Luis’s stories provide a welcome diversion. On the other hand, they’re also a frivolous obsession that keeps Luis from taking life seriously.
It’s not until the men fall ill—first Luis, then Valentin—that they begin to understand the depths of their friendship. There are some truly tender scenes as these two nurse one another through the worst of times, and Valentin begins to reveal a softer side after allowing himself to accept Luis’s care. Sexual orientation and personal convictions cease to matter as the two men help one another through this horrific imprisonment. However, people are resourceful and full of contradictions, and this is never more evident than when their lives (or their freedom) are at stake. Through a series of plot twists, the lives of our protagonists quickly begin to mirror the characters in Luis’s movies.
What makes Kiss of the Spider Woman truly remarkable is the complexity of this alliance. William Hurt and Raul Julia are both at the peak of their powers, alternately fierce and vulnerable in ways that are nothing short of human. Love, loyalty, deception, and integrity are all explored in this quietly compelling and ultimately tragic film, and the viewing experience is at once baffling, maddening, and heart-wrenching. No matter how you feel about the film itself, it will certainly leave you with plenty to chew on.
The two-disc collector’s edition comes with optional tracks in French and Spanish, a trivia track, and enough bonus material to keep you busy all night. There’s a feature-length making-of documentary which includes interviews with the cast and crew, a Manuel Puig Mini-Documentary called “The Submissive Woman’s Role”, a segment on Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway, extensive photo galleries, and a featurette on the transition from novel to film. The original theatrical trailer and teaser are also included, as well as excerpts from critical reviews released in conjunction with the film. All in all, this edition goes a long way to celebrate one of the most revered independent films ever made.