The Human Voice (2020)

The Human Voice is a gripping half-hour monologue of madness and melancholy that brings director Pedro Almodóvar and other-worldly actress Tilda Swinton together in an artistic marriage made in heaven.

See Me, Hear Me, Touch Me, Feel Me

by Alexa Dalby

The Human Voice

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Tilda Swinton is an unnamed woman waiting alone for her lover to collect his designer suitcases (and his pining dog) after he left her without explanation three days ago. Her only contact with him is through anguished phone calls, in which she pleads, cajoles, despairs and rages. She is clearly a mature actress or model – though still in demand, she says – dressed fabulously in designer outfits in sumptuous colours. The apartment is decorated with typical Almodóvar eye-popping reds, oranges and greens with significant accessories – books, paintings, cutlery drawers.

It’s only after we have been convinced that what we see is real that the camera pulls back to show that the apartment is, in fact, phoney – a ceiling-less set furnished with fake props in a huge, bare soundstage. The woman goes outside it once to a hardware shop, dressed in a strikingly elegant blue trouser suit, to buy an axe from a nervous salesman. Swinton is the only actress you could imagine doing so with such aplomb: you know she means business.

Almodóvar has freely adapted this one-person showpiece about the pain of abandonment from Jean Cocteau’s 1930s stage play La Voix Humaine. The jagged, tension-inducing cello score is by Alberto Iglesias. The short film is a tour de force for Almodóvar and for Swinton, who runs the gamut of emotions and then some.

There have been other film versions in the past – notably by Rossellini with Ingrid Bergman in the ‘40s. It was a starting point for Almodóvar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and you can spot self-referential snippets in the dialogue (such as ‘the law of desire’).

In his first English-language film, shot in Madrid during the pandemic, Almodóvar brilliantly creates another female-focused world that’s a curiosity of maddening, theatrical, melodramatic, verging-on-camp questions – suicide, murder or freedom? Not least of them is the question of what is the relationship of reality and illusion, of film, director and actor.

The Human Voice premiered at the Venice Film Festival, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released in selected cinemas in the UK from 19 May 2021 with a pre-recorded Q&A with Almodóvar and Swinton.

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