A rare bright spot in our shared annus horribilis of 2020 came when we discovered that director Pedro Almodóvar was collaborating with actor Tilda Swinton in Almodóvar’s first English-language work – truly a dream come true for many of us. Seeing the first behind-the-scenes photographs of them shooting, just a few months ago, in the midst of Pandemic Summer sent anticipation into overdrive. Finding out that it was to be a thirty-minute short did nothing to diminish excitement-levels…so could the finished product possibly live up to the hype?
For me, the answer is an unequivocal yes. From the film’s opening moments, set on a soundstage and featuring Swinton in two striking costumes, it is clear that we’re in for something exciting and special. This is a film that wears its theatrical origins (The Human Voice ‘monodrama’ by Jean Cocteau, first staged in 1930) and cinematic influences (mainly Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 adaptation – L’Amore – starring Anna Magnani) on its sleeve. Almodóvar’s Human Voice does not hide its artifice – it is made abundantly clear that the apartment is a set – and therefore it slides seamlessly into the director’s ouevre.
Almodóvar has long been interested in portraits of artists, from 1988’s Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (in which the main character is a TV actress), to 1999’s All About my Mother (which features an actress who plays Blanche in a theatre production of Streetcar), all the way up to 2019’s Pain and Glory (in which Antonio Banderas plays a film director and lives in an apartment surrounded by Almodóvar’s personal belongings). Here, Swinton is seen ‘preparing for her role’ at the start – firstly in a classical red dress while classical music plays, then in a futuristic black outfit while electronic music plays.
The costume design by Sonia Grande and production design by Antxón Gómez are huge factors in making The Human Voice the stunning work that it is. From the opening two outfits – in stark red and black – Swinton changes into a smart blue suit to do a spot of axe shopping. She spends the longest portion of the film – featuring the pivotal phone call – in smart red trousers and matching red turtle-neck. Then the grand finale features a leather outfit which is as ‘fire’ as her surroundings.
The apartment is the height of sophisticated European design, in Almodóvar’s signature bold colours. Some details of set decoration include a Vargas nude and Swinton busily tidying up a pile of DVDs and books on a coffee table which will have you pausing to note down all of the titles. I like to think that the first one we see – Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters – is a nod to the fact that Koreeda recently made the most Almodóvar film of all time – The Truth.
The core of The Human Voice is a monologue delivered by Swinton while on the phone to her lover of four years, who is leaving her. She has spent several days haunting her own apartment like a ghost, with his dog, waiting for him to come and collect his bags or to call. When the call finally comes, her purgatory is ended. She starts the call by lying about what she’s been doing and how she is feeling, but gradually the mask falls and she admits how devastated and depressed she has been, to the point of slashing one of his suits with the axe and taking a combination of thirteen pills.
It goes without saying that the entire film hinges on Swinton’s performance and while it does involve some classic Almodóvar melodrama, especially in the first half, gradually it becomes much more grounded and real – her most vulnerable emotions are exposed like an open wound by the end. If you most associate Swinton with her over-the-top performances (often complete with prosthetics, wigs and false teeth), in her work with Bong Joon-ho and Wes Anderson, then there is something refreshing to be found here.
The Human Voice is a rare jewell that has come along not just to momentarily brighten our lives with a pleasant distraction (not that that isn’t sorely needed at the moment), but to also present something richly layered and worthy of examination for years to come. I’m a huge fan of work that has something to say about the artform it is presented in (in this case cinema, while acknowledging its huge debt to theatre) and also showcases many other artworks, meaning it is a jumping-off point for the audience discovering paintings or books that they may not have known before. The fact that this film was able to be made and given a festival release all within a few short months in this year, of all years, gives me some hope for the future of cinema, theatre and other artforms – they may have to adapt, but they will endure.