An intense, well-played but over-earnest three-hander on the destructiveness of sexual confusion, "Second Skin" starts out slow but ends up engaging both heart and mind, despite occasional slips into straight melodrama.

An intense, well-played but over-earnest three-hander on the destructiveness of sexual confusion, “Second Skin” starts out slow but ends up engaging both heart and mind, despite occasional slips into straight melodrama. Despite a high-profile cast, a good script and quality production values, pic’s premise — husband falls for gay man — is unlikely to make it mainstream fare, and a general lack of stylistic daring hangs over the project. Spanish auds will be fascinated by the prospect of seeing two of their best character actors and sexiest symbols — pretty-boy Jordi Molla and beefy Javier Bardem — doing some tastefully lensed dirty dancing together, but decent B.O. at home is unlikely to translate into much offshore interest beyond standard Spanish territories.

Molla plays aeronautical engineer Alberto, who’s married to artist Elena (Ariadna Gil) and has a son, Manuel (Adrian Sac). But five minutes into the movie there’s already some steamy boudoir business between Alberto and orthopedic surgeon Diego (Bardem). Alerted to her husband’s unfaithfulness by a hotel invoice in his dry-cleaning, Elena confronts Alberto, who confesses — but doesn’t reveal that his infidelity was with a man.

At a beachside medical convention Alberto meets Diego’s boss, Eva (Cecilia Roth), who has a soft spot for her employee. Alberto is now dishing out pain to Diego, and hereon his character rapidly loses audience sympathy as he moves hurtfully between wife and lover.

The rejected Elena fights back emotionally, sleeping with her colleague Rafa (Javier Albala). Alberto comes back to the nest and is forgiven by Elena — before again shuttling back to Diego for a little more bump ‘n’ grind when he should be at his son’s birthday party.

The script sidesteps simplistic moralizing. Gil, last seen as a raving psycho in Ricardo Franco’s “Black Tears,” is typically efficient as the wife torn between desire for revenge and the need to understand. Bardem is strong as the generous-hearted Diego, his pugilist’s features creating interesting tensions with his character’s sensitivity.

Molla’s perf is OK, but, considering that Alberto is the heart of the pic, there are problems with his role. Too little time is given to his motivations, apart from some “troubled childhood” psychology during the final reel. His constant indecision and lying become wearing.

Pic’s structure is satisfyingly compact and punchy, the dialogue sometimes painfully direct in its observations of the hypocrisies that make and break relationships. An occasional chuckle, however, would not have been amiss in the serious atmosphere.

Second Skin

Spain

Production

A Lolafilms Distribucion release of a Lolafilms production, with participation of Via Digital, Antena 3 TV. (International sales: Lolafilms, Madrid.) Produced by Andres Vicente Gomez. Directed by Gerardo Vera. Screenplay, Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde.

Crew

Camera (color), Julio Madurga; editor, Nick Wentworth; music, Roque Banos; art director, Ana Alvargonzalez; sound (Dolby Digital), Antonio Rodriguez (Marmol). Reviewed at Cine Renoir Princesa, Madrid, Jan. 17, 2000. (In Berlin Film Festival --- Panorama.) Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Diego - Javier Bardem
Alberto - Jordi Molla
Elena - Ariadna Gil
Eva - Cecilia Roth
Rafa - Javier Albala
Elena's Mother - Mercedes Sampietro
Manuel - Adrian Sac
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