Our review of Second Skin (2008), published August 21st, 2009, is also available.
Un triangulo diferente.
This Spanish film attempts to explore an emotionally complicated love triangle between Alberto Garcia (Jordi Mollà), his wife Elena (Ariadna Gil), and his lover Diego (Javier Bardem). The film starts out strong, lapses in the middle, and ends weakly. However, the acting is excellent throughout, which makes Segundo Piel (known as Second Skin in the US) more compelling than it has a right to be.
Facts of the Case
Alberto and Elena seem to have it all. They have fulfilling careers, an adorable son, and a great house in Madrid. Yet Elena feels a great void in her life. She thinks the problem is with her, until she discovers that Alberto has been unfaithful. The twist is that his fling is with a young surgeon named Diego.
The lines drawn, Second Skin explores the ramifications of Alberto's dishonesty. When all is said and done, the real question is who to feel sorriest for.
Films sometimes write themselves into a corner. The audience can appreciate the difficulty and forgive an occasional deux machina. It is more frustrating when a film does not write itself into a corner, explores powerful themes and builds to a compelling climax but flubs the ending. The back cover has this to say: "When Diego encourages Alberto to start a new life, one that is true to himself, this compelling triangle takes a turn that no one expects." If they mean no one expects it because it is completely incongruent with the previous 90 minutes, I agree. But the turn Second Skin takes will be familiar to anyone who has watched soap operas or listened to '50s music.
Too bad, really. The characters, particularly Alberto, are maddeningly underwritten. Yet the actors pour such effort and finesse into them that we can't help but be engaged. Sure, the story is well-tread, but this take seems fresh and the actors compel us to care.
Things begin well. The opening credits are masterfully done, artistic yet subdued. They fade to a quiet shot of Elena working, and then going home to fix dinner. It is unspoken, but we sense that we are about to witness a dramatic change in her life. She soon finds evidence of her husband's unfaithfulness.
At this point, the movie could have lapsed into any number of clichéd story arcs. To its credit, Second Skin does not lapse. Sighing in relief, the audience perks up to watch this knot unravel.
Second Skin travels quite far by withholding information. We have questions: why isn't Alberto being honest with his new lover? How will he come to terms with his nature? Why, once caught, does Alberto persist in lying to everyone? What drives his unhappiness? Second Skin nimbly steps around these issues, piling on more tension, hurt, and obfuscation.
At some point, I realized that Alberto's motivations weren't going to be explained, that Second Skin was going to focus on people's reactions to Alberto instead of giving us answers. That might have worked if they'd given us a little more, some hint of Alberto's inherent but unexpressed humanity. In lieu of that information, the Alberto we have to work with is a weak willed, manipulative narcissus. He takes no action save avoidance. He doesn't wrestle with his issues. At some point, I ceased to care much about Alberto.
Once the mystique of this story had worn out its welcome, the next wave of plot twists and lies seemed somewhat arbitrary. We get it, Alberto is conflicted and apparently incapable of trying to confront the mess he's made. But the story still had elements that maintained my interest. The other characters force Alberto into committing one way or the other. Finally, this mess will be resolved; Alberto will have to do something.
At this point, Second Skin inexplicably nose dives into soap operatics. What was a mature exploration of adult pain and emotional attachment morphs into "Hallmark Special" territory. I felt slightly stung, as though I'd completely misjudged the previous caliber of the story.
I should have seen it coming, because the clues were in the music all along. The opening music is haunting and sets a tone of contemplative emotional turmoil. I was all set to laud its sophisticated qualities when a dose of melodrama poured from the speakers. Okay, a misstep, nothing more. But soon, it crept in again. Eventually, every scene was flush with sweeping melancholy, wringing shallow emotionality from the most mundane shots.
The DVD presentation adds little to the package. The video quality is passable, but not spectacular. Grain periodically asserts itself. Many scenes are soft or slightly out of focus. There is little contrast in the dark scenes, though the darkness does enhance the mood of oppression in key scenes. The cinematography is artistically handled.
The extras package is straightforward: photo gallery and trailer. Commentary is sorely needed to enhance this DVD package: a new perspective on the characters and their motivations would dramatically improve rewatchability. Without more information, I'm not dying to see it again.
A pet peeve of mine is poor menu design. This one suffers from an unnecessarily compressed static image with noticeable pixelization. The disc has plenty of room left. The menu gives us a first impression, so let's use clean images, shall we?
Despite its weaknesses, Second Skin does weave a quietly engaging story of hurt and sexuality. The acting is the main reason to see it. The story and characters could have been much better with some thought, which makes the movie frustrating. Flaws notwithstanding, Second Skin is more intelligent than the standard Hollywood fare and worth a look on a rainy day.
Alberto, I sentence you to write a book report on why honesty is the best policy. Don't expect help from the writers: they are to immediately rewrite an ending that Second Skin deserves.
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