Directed by Hector Babenco and based on the popular novel by Manuel Puig, Kiss Of The Spider Woman was a pretty big deal when it was made in 1985, receiving four Oscar nominations and taking home a statue for William Hurt who earned himself a win in the Best Actor category. Independent studio City Lights Home Entertainment have rightfully decided to celebrate Babenco's wondrous cinematic achievement with their new two-disc special edition release of the film, currently available exclusively through Amazon.
The film tells the story of Luis Molina (William Hurt), a flamboyant homosexual locked in prison somewhere in South America, convicted of immoral behavior. To escape the dreariness of his day to day existence, he tends to drift off into a fantasy world inhabited by things he's seen in the movies. Sharing Luis' cell is a Marxist revolutionary named Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia) who has been locked up for his political beliefs and activities. Due to certain problems occurring outside the prison, Luis and Valentin have basically begun to assume that they'll never again be free men.
Despite the fact that the two prisoners have little in common aside from their incarceration, they soon begin to understand and appreciate one another despite differing lifestyles and points of view. They really have only one another to depend on and start to open up to each other, telling stories of those they left behind in the world and those who they still care about. What Valentin is completely unaware of, however, is that Luis is simply a pawn put in place by the warden (Jose Lewgoy) of the prison to gain information about revolutionary activities that he may know about. Complicating things just a tad is the fact that Luis is beginning to fall in love with Valentin and so he now needs to figure out whether he wants to give the warden what he wants in exchange for his freedom or stay true to the one he loves and risk spending the rest of his life in prison.
Kiss Of The Spider Woman is a film of contrasts on many different levels, the most obvious being the two lead characters who couldn't be further apart in terms of politics, lifestyles, demeanor and attitude. Complimenting the contrast in character developed by the script and performances is the visual style. The scenes that take place in the prison are dark, dreary, grainy and ugly looking while the 'movie world' fantasies that Luis envisions and narrates are as glorious and glamorous as anything to have come out of Hollywood during its initial heyday even if they play out like Nazi propaganda movies. Of course, as the two men become closer to one another the 'movies' that Luis narrates begin, in their own way, to parallel these events wherein a beautiful female lounge singer named Leni Lamaison (Sonia Braga) becomes involved with a German named Werner (Herson Capri). It's interesting the way that Babenco's film allows the two different worlds, the real world and the fantasy world, to collide in much the same way that the two different characters come together.
The performances are excellent across the board. While Hurt garnered more recognition than the rest of the cast, Raul Julia is in many ways just as good as his Academy Award winning co-star and it's hard to imagine one without the other. It's also interesting to see Hurt play a softer role here than the ones he'd taken on in the past in pictures like The Big Chill. Sonia Braga's turn as the Spider Woman/Leni is an interesting and very calculated performance but she and the rest of the very capable supporting cast are simply overshadowed by the two leads.
The film is also quite striking in appearance. There are plenty of slick and wonderful camera movements that transition from scene to scene and keep things looking quite nice throughout the film. Had the entire picture simply been set in a dank prison cell it probably would have gotten old fast but that's simply not the case here and despite the fact that much of the movie takes place in a dreary locale, it really is a gorgeous looking picture.
The 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is well authored but it does show more than a little bit of print damage and heavy grain in some scenes. Granted, the film is supposed to look gritty in some scenes but here, at times at least, it looks dirty and that's not quite the same thing. Color reproduction looks good and black levels are fairly strong throughout but some fine detail is lost in the shadows and in the darker scenes. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts nor is there much in the way of edge enhancement to complain about thankfully. It's a shame that the elements were cleaned up a bit more for the DVD but as it stands this is a good transfer even if it has left some obvious room for improvement.
The primary audio track on this release is an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix that comes with optional subtitles available in English, French and Spanish. Optional Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono tracks are also provided in English, French and Spanish.
Purists may opt for the English Mono mix and there's nothing wrong with that at all, it sounds pretty good here. The 5.1 track opens things up a bit, however, and while the film remains primarily a 'front of the mix' production, and it spreads the score around quite nicely and effectively. There are no problems with hiss or distortion in the mix to report on, and the dialogue stays clean and clear throughout. The levels are well balanced and the movie sounds just fine regardless of which option you choose.
Aside from menus and chapter stops, the first disc contains only the film's original theatrical trailer (presented in letterboxed widescreen) and a trivia track (available in English and Spanish) that plays along with the film and relays some interesting information about the film and those who made it. A formal commentary track would have been very welcome as sometimes these bits of trivia flash on the screen very quickly and that can make reading them a bit of a chore.
Thankfully, the second disc in the set contains some more substantial extra features, starting with Tangled Web: Making Of Kiss Of The Spider Woman, a feature length documentary clocking in at over a hundred minutes long that does a fantastic job of exploring how and why this film was made. In some ways, the story of how this film got made and what went wrong during the production is almost as interesting as the movie itself and this excellent documentary, which involves pretty much all of the cast and crew members still available, does a fine job of uncovering that story. If you enjoyed the film at all, definitely take the time to check this one out as it's so much more than just a promotional or /EPK style featurette, it has some real meat on its bones and simply needs to be seen.
The Submissive Woman's Role, a mini-documentary about the film's author, Manuel Puig (who passed away in 1990), is up next. At just under ten minutes, this featurette is a nice mix of interview audio clips and biography material as it examines Puig's life and his work. It also allows him to explain his take on things and talk about what lead him to write the original book in the first place.
Up next is another documentary entitled Spider Woman On Broadway that features interviews with Hal Prince, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Chita Rivera, Terrance McNally and Manuel Puig. This featurette basically just examines how the novel that was turned into a movie was turned into an award winning Broadway production by way of some interviews with those who worked on the production. It's a little promotional in nature but offers enough worthwhile information that fans of the material will probably want to give it a look.
Finishing off the second disc is a 36 minute slideshow with commentary from film critic Norman Lavers that demonstrates how the material made the transition from a novel to a feature film, as well as a series of five still galleries that contain over 150 images from the film including behind the scenes and promotional shots. A trailer, a teaser, and some review excerpts from the film's theatrical run are also provided.
The transfer could have been a little better and an audio commentary would have been nice but Kiss Of The Spider Woman is a great film no matter how you want to look at it and City Lights Home Entertainment have done a nice job on this release, particularly with the inclusion of the massive documentary. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.