Thursday, March 4, 2021

Gerardo Vera | Segunda piel (Second Skin)

the end of the sea

by Douglas Messerli

Ángeles González Sinde and Gerardo Vera (screenplay), Gerardo Vera (director) Segunda piel (Second Skin) / 1999

The critics, in general, did not like Spanish director Gerardo Vera’s film Second Skin, and I don’t blame them. This 1999 work, I should warn sophisticated fiction readers, has nothing at all to do with the US writer John Hawkes’ 1964 fiction Second Skin; pity.

     Some commentators, such as David Ehrenstein, writing in the Dallas Observer, compares this movie, in passing, to Arthur Hiller’s 1982 film Making Love, but to do so, I suggest, brings up the serious problems with Vera’s work and sidesteps what I think is a far more compelling issue about bi-sexuality that the film attempts, somewhat unsuccessfully, to explore.

      Indeed, on the surface, the successful aeronautical engineer Alberto García (Jordi Mollà)—blessed with a loving wife who works as a graphic print artist Elena (Ariadna Gil) and an almost too-perfect to be believed son—seems to be hiding a heterosexual affair. At least, that is what Elena first believes when she discovers a receipt from a hotel and sundry other pieces of paper her husband has left in his suit coat just returned from the cleaners. 

      Their relationship has apparently seemed so perfect that she is even hesitant to bring up her discovery, but when he also begins to go missing for hours from his job and she cannot reach him for long periods on her cell phone, Elena, like Hiller’s character Claire Elliot, perceives that Alberto has been lying to her. But when she attempts to have a discussion about it, even suggesting that she herself might seek out the help of a psychiatrist, he refuses to even begin a conversation let alone join her to talking to a “shrink.” 

      So intractable is Alberto that she finally calls the hotel and confirms that her husband has indeed been a guest there a few weeks earlier. When she angrily reveals what she has discovered, he admits to having an affair with a woman he had met years earlier, but assures Elena that it was for one night only and reiterates his love for his wife alone.

     An even longer spell of inexplicable absences, including at one point, his own son’s birthday party, along with the repeated voice of a male caller on his cell phone, reveals to her that the one-night stand with a woman he has confessed was actually a much more recurrent relationship with a man. Accordingly, we have it appears entered into the territory that Making Love so precociously explored decades earlier.

     Yet by this time the viewer already knows that Alberto is lying, not only to his wife but to his male lover, the beautiful and sensitive orthopedic surgeon Diego (Javier Bardem)—observing them as well in a hot gay sexual scene outside the covers—who he has failed to inform that he is married with a child

    Accordingly, if Elena isn’t yet fed up with Alberto’s lies, the film’s audience certainly is, and the sexual focal point of this work, Alberto, who apparently with great difficulty and pain pivots between the two, is either having an inordinately difficult time in coming out as a gay man or is a hidebound bisexual unable to give up his lovers of either sex. It also thrusts Vera’s film into the realm of soap opera, as the viewer increasingly begins to think of the lying coward as a villain to the more passive hero (Diego is presented as. what in what old-fashioned gay jargon is describes it,  a “bottom”) and the wife, both attempting in their near adoration of Alberto to allay any dramatic confrontations and forgive him for his unpredictable fits of abusive absence and silence.

      Both Elena’s sagacious mother, María Elena (Mercedes Sampietro) and Diego’s co-worker Eva (Cecilia Roth) despise Alberto and advise their daughter and colleague to end their relationships. Apparently both the otherwise smart and loveable Elena (who has a brief fling with her handsome co-worker Rafa in revenge) and Diego (who is having difficulty concentrating on his patients and surgical operations) seem able to “dump the creep,” the words I am sure had I seen this film in the theater the audience might by this time be chanting. After a night or two in the sack where Alberto performs, after his previous performance with Diego, rather tepid sex, Elena is about to give the guy another try; but when at a celebratory dinner, she asks him a simple but crucial question—“How long have you been sleeping with men?”—he storms out of the restaurant (without even paying the bill), tears welling up his eyes as he bleats out a cry to Elena, “Help me!” she finally recognizing that if for her son’s sake if not for her own sanity, she has to obtain a divorce. 

     Diego goes so far as to visit Alberto at his airport hanger-contained spiffy offices, where he mostly gets the cold shoulder before his lover promises to meet him at the astoundingly specific day and time: Wednesday at 4:00, as if it were an execution instead of a date for making love or even talking about returning to his bed. 

     When Alberto is too busy to show up even for that specifically parceled-out moment in time, Diego turns up again in Alberto’s office, this time bearing a gift of a book just to show there is still no hard feelings. One begins to feel that Diego is far too dense of mind to be a skillful surgeon; but when Alberto refuses to even unwrap his present, he too knows it is time to wave a final farewell.

      Now he is freed of his heterosexual responsibilities, however, Alberto again shows up at Diego’s door, and the two continue their affair, this time mostly in Alberto’s new apartment. There are still things, however, that Diego needs to talk about: for example, why did a boy repeatedly answer Alberto’s cellphone, and why wouldn’t Alberto return those numerous calls? Finally—far too late in the plot to be slightly believable—the inveterate liar admits he is married with kid. In fact, he is ready for another, and finally we hope, a truly cathartic breakdown. He admits to having lied throughout his life so often that it seemed like the truth. As he finally admits, he hates his work, hates his life. His life has been lived entirely to please his father and grandfather. “I’ve spent my entire life passing everyone’s tests.”

     If one might think that this is the moment our unpleasant hero is finally ready to admit that he is gay and, as Diego proposes, to live out his life on his own terms, you picked the wrong worm. When Diego argues for their love, Alberto cryptically responds “Neither of us feel right.”

    At least, Alberto seems to be admitting to his total schizophrenia. It is not that he prefers one life, whether forced upon him or not, better than the other. He remains a truly split personality, a true bisexual unable to come to terms of accepting the full consequences of either of his identities.

    Even Diego now knows it is time for his exit, but Alberto cannot even accept that fact, insisting instead that he will leave—his own apartment!

    What he truly means, we suspect, is he will leave life itself behind. He quickly mounts his motorcycle, spinning out of sight around the corner and into a coming rush of traffic, dying soon after from injuries in the crash.

      A tacked on epilogue where the two ex-lovers meet up to share their inexorable grief in having loved this despicable man makes both of these fine actors seem like foolish dolts. No wonder Bardem, about to brilliant perform as Gay writer Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls—for which is was nominated for an Oscar—fought against the release of Second Skin!

     Yet this film did haunt me, making be ponder a bit more than usual what bi-sexuality might really represent. When I was young—I suspect to help allay my own outsider feelings for having identified as homosexual—I argued that all men and women were born equally open to all possibilities for sexual satisfaction, but that societal pressures and personal relationships ultimately narrowed those choices not always expected ways. Well, I was young and believed in pansexualism even if it turned out a few years later that, despite heavy heterosexual dating, I entered a basically monogamous gay relationship that has lasted 51 years—without my ever having had sex with a woman. I certainly enjoyed the company of women but simply, I now realize, was just never sexual aroused by the female gender. I was born a homosexual.

     In retrospect, it seems to be that identifying oneself bisexual is a youth-oriented act. A recent Gallup poll almost suggested that an increased 15.9% of Generation Z individuals (those born between 1997 and 2002) identified as LGBT as opposed to 78.9% describing themselves as straight, and 5.2% having no opinion (perhaps the Q factor of the LGBTQ gathering). Of that almost 16% of the population, however, a staggering 72% of the LGBT-identifying individuals describe themselves as bisexual, with means at 11.5% of the US adult population claim to be bisexual at an early age, while only 2% identify as being gay, lesbian, or transgender.

     While the total number of youths identifying as LGBT may be on the rise, accordingly, the gay, lesbian, and transgender portion of that population is still an astounding minority of young US men and women.

      Youth, as we have long known, is a time of discovery and exploration, and being bisexual represents some of that in terms of sex. And that’s absolutely fine when one is seeking only sex without the commitments of a longer-term relationship.

       But what happens to bisexuals, I need to ask, as they grow older. If they wish to continue without making long term relationships, they perhaps will do so, simultaneously, or alternately seeking out same-sex and opposite-sex experiences. But as relationships begin to develop, as they often do, or, to put it in somewhat archaic terms—but which remains at the heart of the vast majority of gay, lesbian, and transgender cinematic narratives—one falls “in love,” choices are necessarily made unless one can find partners of either sex who are nonplussed by an open relationship with partners of varying genders. It would be fascinating if in another few years from now we discover that people in relationships show no jealousy or concern about open relationships involving others with different sexual identifications.

       Any traditional notion of marriage, however, represents some rather severe shifts in identification. If a male determines to maintain a permanent or long-term relationship with another he might not he begin to define himself as gay, or in the case of a woman seeking a long-term relationship with another woman define herself as a lesbian. Choosing someone of another gender suggests that no matter whether you’re male or female, you’ve “gone straight.”

       An attempt to live simultaneously in relationships with both, as this movie suggests, demands total honesty and acceptance on the part of all parties. And I should think it would represent a fairly difficult and demanding lifestyle as well. To live both in a closeted manner, in the way Alberto did in Vera’s film, would end up surely hurting nearly everyone involved.

       That may explain why in the next youngest group of polled individuals, the Millennials (1981-1996) only 2.0% identify themselves as bisexual, 0.8% percent as gay, 1.2% as lesbian, and 0.4% as transgender (the same amount as in Generation X). By the time you get to my generation, the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), only 0.3% claim to be bisexual, 1.2% as gay, and 0.4% lesbian, with the same 0.2% identifying as transsexual.

      Somewhere along the line, a lot of LGBT individuals dropped out and entered the straight world, or perhaps, never fully explored the other possibilities it as they might today.

       Early in Vera’s film, Antonio describes himself as a child who, when he reached a beach, would immediately rush forward into the sea, much to the consternation of his parents, to face the rush of rolling waves and turbulence. Diego asks him why, since apparently he was unable to swim. “I was trying to get to the other side,” he explains, “to the end of the sea.” But there is no end to the sea, Diego reminds him.

      That is Antonio’s problem in a nutshell. He has attempted all of his life to escape the dangerous tide and turmoil of human relationships by speeding toward them, hoping to find peace and acceptance within a force that always remains in violent flux. Encountering other human beings is the very definition of danger and possible drowning; the only way to escape is to live, metaphorically speaking, alone in some isolated inland village or to seek out death. Or, perhaps, learn to swim with the tide or to keep someone at your side to save you.

Los Angeles, March 4, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021)


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