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‘The Human Voice’ Review: Tilda Swinton Sets the Screen Ablaze in Pedro Almodóvar’s Iridescent Short

Pedro Almodóvar's delicious, exquisitely dressed miniature adapts the old Jean Cocteau chestnut into something quintessentially his own.

'The Human Voice' Review: Almodóvar's Witty,
Courtesy of El Deso D.A.

“These are the rules of the game, the law of desire,” Tilda Swinton sighs, playing an unnamed woman — who, let it be said, looks and speaks and dresses an awful lot like Tilda Swinton — whose lover has left her, and can only be bothered to say goodbye over the phone. We don’t hear his side of the conversation, as she vents hers, crisp and enunciated even in despair, into discreetly tucked airpods; it looks for all the world as if she’s talking to herself, and perhaps she even is. It’s not as if anyone talks like this anyway, articulating violent heartbreak through film references as neatly coordinated as her Technicolor apartment decor. We’re in the world of Pedro Almodóvar, where raw human feeling and dizzily heightened artifice are complementary modes of expression, not contradictory ones: “The Human Voice,” his palate-cleansing vodka shot of a short film, distils his own rules of the game and laws of desire into a concise, concentrated burst of demented passion.

Almodóvar’s first short film in 11 years, and his first of any length to be made in English, “The Human Voice” outwardly seems like more of a departure for Spain’s most celebrated living auteur than it really is. It’s not, in fact, his first stab at filming the oft-interpreted Jean Cocteau monodrama of the same name. After explicitly referencing the one-woman theater piece in his 1987 film “Law of Desire,” he made it the conceptual starting point of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” the next year. The latter film also probed the frenzied mind of a woman recently dumped, though amid a slew of chaotic subplots, never worked its way to the cathartic phone conversation that forms the spine of Cocteau’s work.

A closer adaptation that nonetheless takes plenty of its own vibrant liberties with the text — Almodóvar opts for a “freely adapted” credit on screen — the poised, punchy “The Human Voice” is the yin to the yang of that bustling early film, indicating how the director’s filmmaking has evolved even as his fixations remain constant. Premiering in Venice as a noncompeting apéritif to Jasmila Zbanic’s Competition feature “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” the 30-minute miniature is an essential for Almodóvar and Swinton completists alike, and will likely cultivate a keen following via specialist streaming platforms following its festival run.

The simple core of Almodóvar’s version remains true to the source, as Swinton’s high-strung heroine receives a call from her recently shed ex, and proceeds to talk him through her state of mind in the days since his departure. In doing so, she cycles through moods of rational acceptance, girlish pleading, near-suicidal desperation and more — the various stages of breakup grief, but compressed into one volatile, erratic confessional. It’s in the framing of this one-sided conversation, however, that Almodóvar gets wittily inventive. Following a series of pre-credit tableaux that present the protagonist silently waiting for her lover’s return — clothed in outlandish Balenciaga haute couture that gives extreme meaning to the term “all dressed up with nowhere to go” — he surprises us with a trip to that least fabulous of locations, the hardware store, into which she glides with alien serenity, to purchase a large axe. Rest assured the next 25 minutes will not disappoint us in putting it to use.

Before we hear the human voice in question, meanwhile, Almodóvar and Swinton taunt us with all manner of riveting wordless business, as she restlessly stalks around her plush, primary-colored apartment like a woman on the verge of, well, anything. Followed insistently by a mournful-looking border collie, she makes and drinks a cup of coffee with fidgety unease, gathers and downs a cocktail of prescription pills, and takes a head-clearing shower without removing her svelte scarlet cashmere pantsuit. (However many runway-ready designer lewks you think Swinton can rock in the course of half an hour, costume designer Sonia Grande coolly exceeds your expectations.)

Almodóvar has always delighted in watching his stars swagger through domestic minutiae, and in Swinton, he’s found an English-language actor ideally attuned to his dual flair for everyday observation and heightened, blooming melodrama: She’s equal parts Jeanne Dielman and swooning Sirkian heroine, tensely mesmerizing even when you know exactly what she’s going to do. Anyone familiar with Anna Magnani’s reading of “The Human Voice” for director Roberto Rossellini in 1948’s “L’Amore,” or Ingrid Bergman’s interpretation for TV in 1966, will spot traces of their DNA — raging and brittly vulnerable, respectively — in Swinton’s performance. Yet she’s made the woman less of a victim, more in command of her own considerable pain. One can only hope a full-scale collaboration between actor and director is ahead.

As for Almodóvar and his regular collaborators, “The Human Voice” largely operates as a tribute to their joint oeuvre: Bar some discordant electronic intrusions, Alberto Iglesias’ rich orchestral score is in fact a sampled collage of themes from “Talk to Her,” “Bad Education,” and others, while cinematographer José Luis Alcaine dials up signature, saturated paprika reds and cobalt blues to a near-parodic, eye-searing degree. Most ingeniously of all, longtime production designer Antxon Gómez has constructed a quintessential Almodóvar interior — even dressed with props and furniture from past films — only to situate it in a hangar-like film studio, exposing its seams and one-dimensional artifice. A gigantic, luminous chroma key screen hangs askew in the backdrop of one scene, like an angrily torn curtain.

Forty years into his career, Almodóvar is happy to expose outright the naked theatricality that has always been part and parcel of his filmmaking: the mannered, layered stylistic contrivances that, in his greatest films, have arrived at a plainer human truth. “The Human Voice,” in all its delicious absurdity and kitsch extravagance, ties into the concerns of emotional abandonment and disrupted communication that have long run through his more ostensibly serious works. It’s a spry little change of pace and form that points to fresh future possibilities while glancing back on where he’s been, enfolding a multitude of his pet themes and influences — down to such briefly glimpsed cultural fetish objects as a book of Alice Munro stories, or even a DVD of Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” — into one broken embrace.

‘The Human Voice’ Review: Tilda Swinton Sets the Screen Ablaze in Pedro Almodóvar’s Iridescent Short

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 3, 2020. Running time: 30 MIN.

  • Production: (Spain) An El Deseo D.A. production. (International sales: FilmNation Entertainment, New York City.) Producers: Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar, adapted from the play by Jean Cocteau. Camera: José Luis Alcaine. Editor: Teresa Font. Music: Alberto Iglesias.
  • With: Tilda Swinton .
  • Music By: