The Human Voice (La voz humana, Spain 2020)

Pedro Almodóvar’s short film (30 minutes) made during the 2020 lockdown in Madrid is currently streaming on MUBI. I was not sure what to expect from one of my favourite filmmakers working in English for the first time and featuring only Tilda Swinton and a collie dog – apart from a brief appearance by Agustín Almodóvar. I read afterwards that Pedro was relieved that working with Ms Swinton turned out to be straightforward. He’d been very worried about working in English. The Human Voice is loosely based on the short theatrical performance piece written by Jean Cocteau in 1928 and staged for the first time in 1930. It has since been performed by a host of female stars, including Anna Magnani for Roberto Rossellini’s L’amore (1948) in which it is paired with another short piece, Il miracolo. Almodóvar had first referenced the piece in Law of Desire (1987) and it then provided inspiration for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

‘The woman’ (Tilda Swinton) and the set of the apartment. Many of the books, paintings and DVDs are from Pedro Almodóvar’s own apartment.

This version of The Human Voice has received much more attention than most short films, partly because of the the unusual circumstances of its production and release during the pandemic but also because of the combination of Almodóvar and Swinton. In formal terms and in its production values, the film is a familiar production from El Deseo. The mode is melodrama and the glories that an experienced team can produce are evident in the lush score by Alberto Iglesias, the cinematography of José Luis Alcaine and the production design by Antxon Gómez. Editor Teresa Font, art director María Clara Notari and others all have at least one earlier Almodóvar production under their belts. From the stunning opening titles through the design of the two studio sets, the presentation of sound, colour and mise en scène delivers everything that we might hope for. I won’t spoil the ending which is slightly different, but the main setting which takes up the bulk of the 30 minutes is an apartment built within a sound stage and presented to us as precisely that, a construction emphasising its own artificialty as it references familiar scenes from Almodóvar’s films, especially the balcony with flowers that features in slightly different versions in both Women on the Verge and Tie Me Up!, Tie Me Down!. But this is very much up market Madrid as evidenced by the costumes and the paintings and the ‘designerware’. Almodóvar emphasises the references with the books and DVDs that his character has lying about the apartment, copies of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956) amongst others, the only jarring note being a copy of Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003) – but maybe that’s just me. The books include works by Alice Munro, Truman Capote and Edna O’Brien but many of these references are only visible if you freeze-frame the image. As in most of Almodóvar’s choices, these ‘significant objects’ are carefully chosen. There is a print of a watercolour by Alberto Vargas, whose 1940s paintings of Hollywood female stars became iconic as a form of Hollywood sexuality, and a 17th century study of ‘Venus and Cupid’ (Sleeping Venus) by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Tilda in red with ear-buds in front of ‘Venus and Cupid’ in her bedroom.

The role of ‘the woman’ is seemingly constructed to offer a star actress the opportunity to demonstrate all she can do. Almodóvar makes the role even more challenging by adopting modern technology, thus depriving the actor of a key prop. In the original stage production and presumably in the later Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman (on TV) performances ‘the woman’ is featured for much of the time in a telephone conversation with the lover who is leaving her. The woman has a physical telephone and a cord linking the telephone to the receiver. She can manipulate the ‘phone and the cord. Swinton however has ear-buds/ear pods and a smartphone in another room. She is effectively delivering a monologue as she moves around the apartment. I found her performance riveting but also slightly unreal. I think her voice, as the title suggests, is the key to the narrative – and, of course, Almodóvar is possibly not able to judge how it sounds to British audiences. I’m not sure if he is a better judge of American voices? This sense of the artificial ‘performance’ voice matches the presentation of the set which straddles a form of realism but also the excess of melodrama and consciously presents its artificialty.

I’m not sure whether the whole thing works for me. As someone who doesn’t use a smartphone and has never tried ear-buds, I generally don’t like to see people wandering about, speaking to themselves. I’m also not really a Tilda Swinton fan, though I admire her acting skills and some of her key performances. In this film the camera is often very close to her face, offering us every detail of her skin and bone structure. She is brave in her wholehearted performance but I guess I just don’t feel the emotion. There are complicated questions about how emotions work in melodramas. In one interview, with Almodóvar we discover:

an otherworldly Tilda Swinton – a cross between David Bowie and Deborah Kerr, according to Almodóvar himself – as an emotionally trapped woman who retains her anonymity, just as in Cocteau’s play.

The vivid primary colours and especially the red dress make me think of Michael Powell and Deborah Kerr, and also of Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. I’m already trying to imagine the Deborah Kerr of Black Narcissus in the role of ‘the woman’. She had a similar background to Swinton and a similar voice but I have had a very different emotional involvement with her screen presence. With Kerr as Sister Clodagh I am emotionally drained, but with Swinton I’m emotionally distanced. I thought it might be an issue of social class but the two actors have a similar background. Kerr was much younger (and potentially vulnerable) when she worked with Powell, perhaps that is important?

One of the ‘painterly’ images of the woman in a Balenciaga (?) dress

I’ve picked out Tilda Swinton’s performance but there are other elements of the narrative. She does have a companion, the dog Dash also pining for the lover, and there are separate discourses of camerawork and of fashion and designer culture (the latter which I feel powerless to interpret). The film is certainly a noteworthy achievement by Almodóvar and Swinton but I’m looking forward to the next feature. Two have been discussed in trade press reports and the first, Parallel Mothers with Penélope Cruz and Rossy de Palma is said to me opening at Venice in September. It sounds more my kind of thing. The second is likely to be an adaptation of the novel A Manual for Cleaning Ladies by Lucia Berlin – a novel which is, I think, in the piles of books on the table in The Human Voice.

Here’s a short US trailer for The Human Voice:

I think that when this short was released in UK cinemas it was accompanied by a pre-recorded Q&A with Almodóvar and Swinton.

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