Leonard Schrader may not get the same sort of press his brother Paul Schrader does as a filmmaker, but he’s made some notable contributions in his own right. And none made more of an impression than his Oscar-nominated screenplay for the 1985 Hector Babenco film “Kiss Of The Spider Woman,” one of the first films that really bullied its way to the Oscar table despite its indie roots. Based on Manuel Puig’s novel, the film is a beautiful, wrenching melodrama about the way melodrama serves as a filter for people that allows them to make sense of the random pain and injustice of the real world. William Hurt won the Oscar for his role as Luis Molina, and watching it now, twenty years later, I think it’s some of his most relaxed and vulnerable work as an actor. Hurt was defined by that almost alien intelligence of his, that way of looking at you like he’s trying to decide whether to befriend you or eat you. Molina brings something totally different out of him, something weak and bruised, and one of the things I find interesting about his performance is just how much of a shit Molina is in the end. He does one or two decent things, but he’s a manipulator, a shit with his own self-interest first above all else. For the film to pain this portrait of this guy, with his sexuality front and center, and not turn him into a noble saint stereotype or the wise bitchy queen stereotype… that’s the gentle innovation of the approach here.
“Kiss Of The Spider Woman” is a very strange and unconventional take on a love story. Valentin Arregui is Molina’s cellmate, a political prisoner played with prickly charisma by the late Raul Julia. Much of the charge of the film comes from the friction between Julia and Hurt. Sex is just one of the things that these two men are and aren’t talking about. Old movies, specifically crappy-but-lush foreign melodramas, are another thing they devote a lot of conversation to, as Molina uses the stories as a way of diverting himself and Valentin alike. The film has some political points to make, but it’s a character drama first and foremost, and that’s what makes it so compelling even now, 20 years outside the initial context for this one. When it came out, it seemed very daring, another of those important milestone game-changers that happen in gay cinema from time to time. And in indie cinema as welll. But now, it’s just a strong, angry piece about two men, connected by circumstance, and the strange bonds between them. And watching Julia and Hurt go at it, scene after scene, is a reminder of a very different moment in film, when both of these guys seemed to have pretty unlimited potential. I miss Raul Julia desperately as a presence in movies. He always seemed so exuberantly batshit, a crazy person who could turn it off long enough to be in a film, but not for much more than that.
This one’s been a long time coming to DVD, and it hit BluRay at the same time, so it’s nice to see them get ahead of the game instead of being this desperately late to the party. I can’t believe a film this well-known had to languish for this many years, and I salute the great City Lights, a smaller distributor with exquisite taste, for finally making sure this was treated right in getting its first DVD release. There’s a feature-length documentary about the making of the film and a host of other extra features that make the 2-disc special edition the one that I would urge any fan of independent cinema to support.