Of course, it’s red. It’s also glossy, velvety, leopard print, and eroticised artworks adorn its walls. It’s an apartment but it’s also an artificially built studio set. It’s the setting that’s both lush and faux, that perfectly compliments a woman’s nervously determined pace in a tracking shot that opens Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice. The Spanish director’s English-language debut glides effortlessly through themes of loss, despair, and troubled communication. Freely based on Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name, the film stars Tilda Swinton (and how she shines!) as an unnamed woman whose partner has left her for another. Plot-wise, it’s only the aftermath of a breakup and a phone call, cut off and on again, conveys what it’s like to be abandoned as Swinton’s voice becomes the singular protagonist.
In a way, The Human Voice has already existed in latent form. Inspired by the one-act play, Almodóvar started working on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which later ended up being an elaborate screwball preface to the source material. The director now presents a stand-alone piece out of the phone call monologue, held together by Swinton’s incandescent performance. Her command of voice and physical acting are the film’s driving force, as only her end of the conversation reveals important plot details, as well as the depths of her emotional instability. A Pandora’s box of bottled rage, betrayal and a sense of irremediable vulnerability – Swinton embodies precisely what Cocteau had in mind for his play, as his notes prescribe that “the actress must give the impression of bleeding.” Her downfall is indeed fierce, as the beginning sees her holding a steady face as she slides the axe she’s just bought from a hardware store into her designer bag, to later thrash a suit symbolically placed on the double bed.
The Human Voice feels achingly personal and its grip is tight both aesthetically and sentimentally. Making a voyeur out of the audience, the film invites a re-evaluation of all disintegrated relationships – a fairly relatable matter but nevertheless evoked in a spectacular way. For Almodóvar, to reinvent himself in the short form and in the English language, also means to channel the undercurrents of pain and arduous passion through his stylistic means. Paired with his regular art director Antxón Gómez, Almodovar cannot help but compose his stories with a backdrop of surrealist paintings, ornamented decor and persistent sanguine colors as a must, preferably as red as a bleeding heart.
Although the original script has been reworked many times before, Almodóvarr’s take says something about the contemporary use of technology. Rather than being critical about it, the film endorses the new means by which we communicate, swapping a stationary phone for wireless earplugs. Such a move allows Swinton to move freely and imbue every part of the frame (and the apartment itself) with a range of (e)motions – from deadweight stasis to an erratic swiftness to manifest bursts of outrage. Then again, exploring the emotional spectrum does not make out of the protagonist a feeble or submissive woman – she cannot be one, in this day and age. “I’m a different woman, you used to say, so different that you forgot I was also a woman”, a line as anti-climactic as this also reveals a strength in such vulnerable states, one that Almodóvar has been generous in granting so far.
The Human Voice sees Almodóvar at his best while pushing the limits of his own comfort zone, while Swinton’s dishevelled woman is sure to win the audience over with a powerhouse performance span out in less than 30 minutes. Shot during lockdown in Madrid, the film also bears an optimistic message for the future of cinema as a space for overcoming turmoils collectively.
Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance film critic based in London. Her bylines include MUBI Notebook, photogenie, Electric Ghost Magazine, Girls On Tops and Screen Queens.