A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"Kiss of the Spider Woman" tells one of those rare and entrancing stories where one thing seems to happen while another thing is really happening. There are passages in the movie that seem to be absolutely self-contained, and then a word or gesture will reveal that they have depths we can only guess. By the end of the film, what started out as a contest between two opposite personalities has expanded into a choice between two completely different attitudes toward life. And the choice is not sexual, although for a long time it seems so. It is between freedom and slavery.
The movie opens in a prison cell, somewhere in South America. A man is telling a story. The story is a lurid intrigue that seems pieced together from fragments and memories of countless old film noir melodramas - from those movies of the 1940s where the women had lips that could kill, and the men were dying to kiss them. Only gradually does the reality of the film reveal itself: We are in a cramped, depressing prison cell, and the story-teller is a prisoner, trying to pass the days by escaping into fantasy.
His name is Luis. He is played by William Hurt as an affected homosexual, a window dresser who has been jailed for sex offenses. His cellmate is Valentin (Raul Julia), a bearded, macho political prisoner who has nothing but contempt for Luis' stories - not to mention his sexuality and his politics. But as Luis calmly explains, unless someone gives him a key to walk out of his prison, he will continue to escape in any way he can.
As he continues to weave his verbal movie plots, the movie uses fantasy scenes to depict them. There is a Nazi crime melodrama, and a thriller about a spider woman, and the woman in both of them is played by the same actress (Sonia Braga). Later in the film, she also will appear as Valentin's lover; reality and fantasy are by then thoroughly mixed.