The Human Voice movie review: Pedro Almodóvar digs into his creative past in a vibrant experimental short
The Human Voice is an enticing one-woman show, featuring a nuanced and devastating performance by Tilda Swinton.
Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice, his first English-language film, is an entrancing oddity. It stars Tilda Swinton in the leading (and for the most party, only) role, in a vibrant experimental work that spans a mere 30-minutes, but feels like a lifetime of heartache and fiery liberation packed into a single sitting.
It also feels like a rumination on Almodóvar’s whole career.
The film is based on the 1930 play La Voix humaine by Jean Cocteau, which he devised as a way to let his lead actress Madame Berthe Bovy cut loose. Like its source material, Almodóvar’s version is laser-focused on his leading lady and her extended phone call with her lover — a man we neither see nor hear — as their long-term relationship finally crumbles, and she’s left to deal with the emotional aftermath amidst his packed suitcases.
Following a brief transaction in the outside world, where Swinton’s unnamed character purchases an axe, the film unfolds largely in the lavish apartment she shares with her well-to-do beau (and their dog Dash, her only companion). This apartment also happens to be built on a soundstage. We see its pristine interiors, but we’re also allowed to step outside and gaze at the unvarnished wooden panels holding up its walls. While a tribute to the story’s theatrical origins, this absurdist architecture is also a perfect metaphor for her relationship: flashy but flimsy, an artificial veneer with invisible boundaries, housing objects of desire and comfort that reveal themselves to be fraudulent with the slightest touch.
Swinton uses the above mentioned axe to chop up a suit belong to her lover, after she lays it out on their bed, as if it were a real person. Trapped within a world of artifice, and spiritually tethered to a man who won’t give her the time of day, her only outlet seems to be lashing out at phantoms. When Swinton finally begins to move past that pain, in a moment of destruction and self-destruction, the film becomes cathartic in a manner both truthful and uniquely personal — and what a performance it is.
When the phone call she’s been waiting for finally arrives, Swinton dances around the topics of her longing, her depression and her self-medication. Her voice is calm, comforting, even apologetic, like she’s walking on egg-shells. But her face tells a different story, with an anguish she turns inward until it can no longer be contained.
With his frequent collaborators in tow — like cinematographer José Luis Alcaine and composer Alberto Iglesias — Almodóvar designs a methodical and exacting Technicolor maze, anchored by heavy meditative strings.
At its center is one of the finest performances Almodóvar has helped bring to the screen.
On paper, it sounds like the kind of film you could shoot in a day, but The Human Voice was shot over the course of 12. Each camera setup and movement is meticulous, as if it were reverse-engineered from some rehearsal session in which Swinton were given total freedom of movement and expression. It’s like the film was built around her performance, and designed expressly to emphasise each outburst of emotion and each withheld nuance. Few theatrical adaptations have felt this distinctly cinematic.
This isn’t the first time cinema has drawn from the La Voix humaine well. The play was also adapted by Italian master Roberto Rossellini in 1948 (as La voce umana, which makes up the first half of his film L'Amore), and it isn’t the first time Almodóvar has adapted it in some form either. The Spanish virtuoso’s 1988 comedy Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) uses Cocteau’s aria as its starting point, as actress Pepa Marco (Carmen Maura) begins taking sleeping pills to cope, as she waits for a phone call from her lover Iván (Fernando Guillén).
If The Human Voice seems overly familiar, that’s part of the point. In recent years, Almodóvar’s work has seemed fixated on the past; 2019 New Yorkl Film Festival darling Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory) saw the director cast Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo, a fictitious version of himself. The film not only explores Mallo’s childhood and burgeoning sexuality via flashback, but its main story involves lovers reunited after years apart and, most notably, Mallo’s reunion with an actor with whom he’d had a creative falling-out several decades ago. It’s likely that this scenario is based, in some part, on Almodóvar’s real-world rift with Carmen Maura, who not only starred in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but in La ley del deseo (Law of Desire) the previous year, in which she played a transgender actress cast in a production of Cocteau’s La Voix humaine.
In Pain and Glory, Mallo mends his shared wounds with actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) after admitting that he didn’t understand Crespo’s creative impulses at the time, though he’s since grown to appreciate them with experience. In revisiting a role he’s had Maura play not once, but twice, Almodóvar now seems to force himself toward a similar understanding. By creating stories so directly tied to his past, his recent work can’t help but feel like apologia writ-large.
Like in Pain and Glory, the apartment in The Human Voice feels like a re-creation of Almodóvar’s own lavish home. It’s hard not to see Swinton’s character as a projection of the director himself, as she picks at the scabs of her relationship and finally expresses long-festering regrets. Swinton’s character dresses ornately as a matter of routine, but the razzmatazz of her outfits and her home are something the camera looks past, as if piercing the veil she’s been hiding behind.
Each time the frame moves from a comfortable long or medium shot into a jarring close-up — sometimes on a dolly, but sometimes through a sudden cut by editor Teresa Font — Swinton’s doubts and uncertainties take center stage. The artifice of everything around her becomes exposed, like a raw nerve, from the deep reds of her Balenciaga gown to the lush greens of her walls, both reflections of the way Law and Desire was designed 33 years ago.
It’s as if Almodóvar were stripping away the flashy exteriors of his own work, and his own lifestyle, to get to the root of a pain that still lingers through time.
This review was first published when The Human Voice was screened at the New York Film Festival 2020. It is being republished in view of the Indian premiere on BookMyShow Stream.
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