A young, handsome, newly married doctor finds he's becoming attracted to other men; after an affair with a young, handsome, feckless novelist, he regretfully leaves his young, attractive, sadder-but-wiser wife. That was the plot of Making Love, and it was considered fairly groundbreaking material in Hollywood back in 1982. Now some nineteen years later comes Second Skin, a 1999 Spanish film in which a young, handsome aviation engineer becomes embroiled in a passionate affair with a young, handsome, far-from-feckless doctor, leading to the dissolution of his marriage to a young, attractive, sadder-but-wiser wife and even further tragedy.
Second Skin is less sexually skittish than its predecessor, and a lot less reassuring about the marital dissolution in the wake of homosexual self-discovery. Yet at the same time, writer-director Gerardo Vera's film is far glossier than Arthur Hiller's -- far glossier than almost all American romantic dramas of recent vintage, in fact, with an overly ripe score and lush Cinemascope cinematography that hearkens back to the days of Ross Hunter. Many viewers may in fact find themselves hard-pressed to sympathize with these victims of romance, considering the plush cells they're suffering in. As a result Vera's technical prowess ends up selling his film short; he smoothes over hard truths even as he uncovers them. This is especially galling as Vera, being gay and having been the "other man" in such an affair (Ángeles Gonzáles Sinde's screenplay is based on an idea of Vera's), is speaking from personal experience. One can only surmise that perhaps he's trying in art to compensate for the pain he's known in life.
The cast, which is filled with modern Spain's leading performers, can't be faulted in any way. As the doctor, Diego, Javier Bardem plays a very different sort of gay man than the one who got him an Academy Award nomination last year for Before Night Falls. Instead of a tortured, imprisoned bohemian intellectual, he's a sweet-spirited, out-of-the-closet middle-class professional. This time around, the lion's share of the story's emotional tumult is provided by the object of his affection, Alberto, played with great insight by Jordi Mollà (Blow).
Both lovers are busy, on-the-move types; perhaps that's why they never have time for deep, meaningful conversation. They're enjoying the time they have together in bed too much to care about anything else, at least in the short run. But this oversight impacts differently on the audience, particularly late in the story, when we're supplied some revelations about Alberto's belief that he's led a life almost entirely controlled by his parents' desires; as a result he's been left with no personality of his own. In that sense, we're put in the same position as his long-suffering wife Elena (Belle Époque's Ariadna Gil); she, like us, is the unhappy outsider who barely knows Alberto at all.
Struggling to come to grips with her husband's sudden lack of desire for her, and not knowing what to do about it, she's completely humiliated when she discovers a hotel bill from a recent tryst with the doctor; she's disgusted by being put in the position of a "wronged" wife. Not knowing anything of his same-sex desires, she naturally assumes it's another woman, and that's what he says when confronted, claiming it was a one-time infidelity. He is, of course, lying to spare her feelings, but he's also staying true to form -- saying what he hopes others will want to hear. This, in turn, sheds light on his affair with the doctor, as little in the way of conversation is involved.
In fact it always seems that just when circumstances would call for a little self-revelation, he scuttles away. But as lie piles upon lie, escape routes disappear. This is made clear when Alberto meets up with Diego and his colleagues at a resort and begins to make a play for a female colleague of his lover's, so concerned is he with maintaining heterosexual appearances. It's a potentially fascinating scene, but like his hero, Vera runs off just as it begins to become really interesting. It only goes to show that filmmakers need distance from their material to make it work, and that the best effect shouldn't be synonymous with the best décor.
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