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'The Human Voice' review: Coming apart in style

Pedro Almodóvar's short film is a showcase for his unparalleled design sense, and for the mercurial Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton in 'The Human Voice'
Tilda Swinton in 'The Human Voice'

Apart from a few people at a hardware store, Tilda Swinton plays the sole visible character in The Human Voice. Her lover of four years has called to say he’s leaving her. We see the conversation from her end—by turn angry, mournful, distraught and pleading as she wanders through her delectably appointed apartment. To see great actors listen and react has its own pleasures but there’s a special excitement in seeing them alone on screen, holding stage and—because this is a Pedro Almodóvar film—buying an axe.

The Human Voice was supposed to go into production before covid-19 hit. Yet, because of its timing (it premiered in October last year) and its largely single-location setting, this film—the first by Almodóvar in English—can be seen as a pandemic-era work. The artificiality of the set is a reminder that our own homes have become, under lockdown, stages where dramas play out, expensive clothes are worn for no good reason, and relationships fray. Swinton’s character has been waiting by the phone for three days, and a sally into the outside world has come to assume larger-than-life proportions, as it did (or still does) for us. “Escape, go out—what does it matter?” she says. “It’s the same thing.”

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From the delightful opening titles, with household objects standing in for letters, to the bright primary colours, this is an instantly recognisable visual and aural universe. One striking frame has an array of anxiety pills, beauty products and a bottle of Chanel No.5—a typically Almodóvarian mélange of fashion and mood-management. His regular costume designer, Sonia Grande, puts Swinton in a series of striking ensembles: a red crinoline dress, a black dress, a turquoise suit, an orange-red knitted outfit, a velvet robe, and finally, a leather jacket with gold lamé pants. Swinton’s anguished solo act notwithstanding, the chief pleasure of The Human Voice lies is its surface dazzle, the matching of couture to décor. (Almodóvar told Sight & Sound the film came about as a "caprice". "I didn’t think it was going to be released," he said, "so I thought of it as an experiment, an exquisite chamber piece to be seen by very few people.")

As always with Almodóvar, tributes are very much the point. The film is an adaptation of a play by French writer and director Jean Cocteau, which also inspired his 1988 film, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. There are DVDs and books that Swinton rearranges on a table: Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Tender Is The Night, two films by Almodóvar favourite Douglas Sirk, Written On The Wind and All That Heaven Allows, and some recent ones—Phantom Thread, Kill Bill—that offer a clue to the revenge-drama ending of the short (since Jackie and Shoplifters are also glimpsed, it’s quite possible that these were just DVDs Almodóvar was watching in isolation at the time). There are tributes embedded in the action too. As Swinton says “vertigo”, she walks in front of a green curtain, which makes you think of the colour in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film. “The law of desire, the rules of the game,” she tells her lover: the first phrase the title of an Almodóvar film, the latter a Jean Renoir classic that he included in his list for the Sight & Sound best-of-all-time poll.

Swinton’s next film, Memoria, premiering at Cannes, is directed by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. She has been a muse for arthouse film-makers for almost four decades now, working with Derek Jarman, Bong Joon-ho, Luca Guadagnino, Béla Tarr, Jim Jarmusch and Lynne Ramsay. “Women of my age are fashionable again,” her character in The Human Voice says wryly. While this is a dig at Hollywood’s ageist attitude towards female stars, it is shaded by the fact that, for Almodóvar, older women have always been in fashion, and Swinton today is probably more sought-after than she was 20 years ago. It’s a pairing to die for: a director obsessed with surfaces, and an actor with a luminous unknowability.

The Human Voice can be rented on BookMyShow Stream.

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