The Human Voice
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
An admirable artist has an endless desire to take a risk. In his last picture, Pedro Almodóvar has reached a peak in his successful career. He managed to work again with his long time collaborator Antonio Banderas, getting out of his performance in Pain and Glory (2019) a sense of honesty and trust which is rare to eyewitness. He is unafraid to show his vulnerability transforming facts of his biography into a source of melodrama, and eventually, both critics and public appraise his work of art.
Almodóvar can rest. The pandemic is an open license to rest, to do nothing, to enjoy the quietness. But he refuses. He decides for a daunting move, which is to go back to short movies and make his debut in English language.
As a Latin American living in the UK, I always had the feeling that Almodóvar is too dense, complex, ambiguous and colourful for the Brits. The genre “melodrama” is somewhat incomprehensible for them. Not that there are no reasons to have many British women on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Princess Diane is clearly an example) but scandalous behaviour is often suppressed.
Casting Tilda Swinton for the role of a woman having a breakdown is shocking. She is a cold general for Bong Joon Ho; she is an androgynous being for Sally Field; she is an entertaining and unconventional vampire for Jim Jarmusch. And yet Almodóvar has seen in Swinton the same essence that Roberto Rossellini has seen in Anna Magnani. Or that Jean Cocteau has seen in Edith Piaf. Swinton plays a woman who doesn’t accept that her lover has left her.
Furthermore, Almodóvar makes this piece undeniably his. His style scandalously differs from Rossellini’s noir version. In Rossellini’s black and white 1948 adaptation of the short story, there is no room for joy. All is set to be doomed. Comparing to Cocteau’s original piece, the recent Human Voice gains in physicality. The role was originally written for Piaf but she was too young to perform it. She might not have been as pathetically needy as Cocteau imagined.
Almodóvar takes us by the hand and drives us surreptitiously through the colours and shapes on the opening credits. The Human Voice opening credits resurrects Saul Bass, the man who changed graphic design in Hitchcock’s classic movies. There we see the tool to access Tilda’s anger -- the axe. We see the screen blurring into bright colours. Something vibrant and impulsive is about to happen. A bloody crime, perhaps?
There’s then a suggestion of self-destruction, grief and suicide. But luckily, Swinton’s character finds a channel to voice herself when the phone rings. It is indeed a voice that only the audience hears, as the movie is a monologue. The audience doesn’t hear the voice on the other side of the telephone line. Naturally, the choice of a short movie was right for a monologue.
At times, it looks as though she is talking to a wall. She tries to deceive her ex-lover, saying she’s strong and she will be all right after the break-up. But we know she is fooling herself. We know it because the walls, the setting, the paintings, the costume design and the stylish props in Almodóvar give us the answer. The cruel Truman Capote, the revengeful Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, the Balenciaga’s dress, the Chanel number 5 perfume flask -- that resonates with a tragic and needy Marilyn Monroe --, and objects by Cartier and Hermès give us signs. Her dog talks to us, to her. And what you really see is a simulation, a fiction. After all, Swinton’s character is an actress.
Almodóvar made Cocteau’s short tale a modern piece of art. He also turned Swinton’s character into a modern woman, very different from all the others Cocteau’s adaptations. He gave her a solution. His actress is far from being a crying Petra von Kant, or a bitter Lana Turner. In Almodóvar the melodrama that Fassbinder and Sirk master is not tragic, it’s comic. There’s a sense of lightness that stays with us. Surely his characters laugh at their own tragedies. Well, usually they take some pills before laughing.
The Human Voice will be launched on 7 November 2020 at a special event screening in cinemas across the UK. The film will be followed by a pre-recorded Q&A with Almodóvar and Swinton hosted by film critic Mark Kermode.