A soap opera redeemed by its three stars, Second Skin, a Spanish film set in modern-day Madrid, has one of those stories that squeezes as much anguish as possible out of its simple premise. Alberto (Jordi Molla, last seen as Johnny Depp’s unstable drug-dealing partner in Blow) is a successful aeronautics engineer. He has a beautiful wife, Elena (Ariadna Gil), a model son and a dark secret, namely that he’s having an affair with a surgeon named Diego (Javier Bardem).
At first, as the film contrasts the largely unexpressed disquiet of Alberto and Elena’s home life with the graphic rutting of Alberto and Diego, it seems to be about a late-blooming homosexual who can’t bring himself to break with his hetero past. But Alberto’s conflicts are too deep and too fatally ingrained; he wants to be Diego’s passionate lover, but he wants to be Elena’s loving husband too. Unable to choose, he heads toward a crack-up that will surely leave him as neither.
For much of the film, Alberto is a less-than-sympathetic figure — you want to give him a good slap and tell him to shit or get off the pot — mainly because his turmoil is so damaging to both wife and lover. He’s a wreck and a congenital liar, to himself above all others. But as his descent into corrosive desperation proceeds, Molla manages to convey the character’s essential, damaged humanity.
Diego is his exact opposite, comfortable with his sexuality and tolerant of his half-mad lover to the point of near saintliness. This is a very different type of gay character from the one Bardem played in Before Night Falls, being more intelligent than instinctual, charming and quintessentially civilized. And Gil, as the wronged wife — traditionally the scenery-chewing role — is mostly low-keyed, a study in stunned fragility.
The film, like Alberto, doesn’t seem to know how to resolve its conflicts and its deus ex machina ending would seem facile if it weren’t so effectively moving. By that point the soap opera, by dint of three flawless performances, has lifted itself into the realm of genuine tragedy.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0190.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].