Tilda + Pedro 4Ever
Firestarting May 13, 2021
On The Human Voice
any filmmakers return to the same themes. Hardly any, though, continue coming back to the same source material. Pedro Almodóvar is among
the few to do both. The Human Voice, a new short now available to stream on HBO Max, is his third project (following 1987’s Law of Desire and 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) to adapt Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monodrama of the same name. Law of Desire and Women had used the conceit of The Human Voice — essentially a despairing woman, heartbroken over the news that her boyfriend of five years is getting married to someone else, monologuing at said boyfriend over the phone about her heartbreak — as just one narrative strand in a knottily plotted movie.
This new adaptation, in contrast, hews closely to Cocteau’s structurally simple work. Aside
from a brief trip to a hardware store at the beginning of the movie (where the unnamed protagonist, played by Tilda Swinton, worryingly buys an ax), this 30-minute movie is all Swinton, her ex’s abandoned pet Border Collie, and a chic apartment they’re both stuck in. No extraneous narrative detours distract us; it feels like Almodóvar, with a trademark sign at the end of the name, at his most distilled, particularly in the wake of his unusually personal last feature, Pain and Glory (2019). One wishes internationally famous directors like Almodóvar did this more often: challenge themselves, at the peak of their success, to boil down their sensibilities into something low stakes and more pointedly concise between bigger projects.
This adaptation of The Human Voice has no problem getting to the crux of Cocteau’s work (Almodóvar should, after all, have it right by his third stab at it) just as Almodóvar doesn’t hesitate to give stormy life to his now tried-and-true directorial trademarks: garish color, high-decibel emotion, smart fashion. The short is predictably as impassioned emotionally as it is visually. Working with Balenciaga and his recurring costume designer Sonia Grande, Almodóvar allows Swinton to make an incredible number of costume changes either because why not and/or because sometimes, one could say, we wear what we feel. Swinton opens the movie traipsing around in a velvet red dress that makes her look like a walking bell. She will subsequently don a pointy-edged azure suit; a silken bathrobe whose pattern resembles a one-toned barrier reef; and, finally — as if to emit the mess of emotions she has experienced by the film’s end — a leather jacket paired with slouchy gold pants with a blue flannel tied around her waist, a multi-colored floral turtleneck, and blocky black boots. Her coiffed-to-be-stylishly-messy hair — dyed to look like a cup quarter-full of cream newly shocked by some hot coffee — is the finishing touch. One could turn the sound off and be reasonably satisfied by The Human Voice.
I’m sure there isn’t anyone who has endured this pandemic who isn’t a little sick of looking at the walls of their apartment. But if they had the ones constructed for Swinton in The Human Voice, they would find something fresh to look at every day. There isn’t a shape, pattern, or color that doesn't invite a closer look; there isn’t a facet of this space Almodóvar seems unwilling to offer as an art object. When we get quick glimpses of the unnamed woman’s book and DVD collections (which include several Douglas Sirk movies, Truman Capote works, and as a centerpiece — likely because Almodóvar enjoyed the loud yellow of its cover — a copy of 2003’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1), it’s but another methodical extension of the film’s meticulous attention to its appearance. In a particularly melodramatic moment when our protagonist, still fully dressed in a red turtleneck dress and cheetah-print high heels, steps into the shower, we’re as quick to soak up the gesture’s extravagance as we are to notice the prettiness of the shower itself: it doesn’t have a single head but a cloud of white nozzles that simulate the feeling of getting caught in a rainstorm. The woman can’t even kick back a handful of pills — red, yellow, and white, downed with a glass of Domaine de L’Ile rosé — without the cameras also drinking in their color.
Tilda Swinton in 2021's The Human Voice.
lmodóvar’s attentiveness to the visual in his oeuvre is, of course, borne simply out of his own ideas about what looks good on camera. But gaudy color and assiduous design have also always acted as
microphones for the tempestuous emotions that sit at the center of most of his stories. The effect, which has recurred dependably throughout his four-decade-long career, is particularly pronounced in The Human Voice, I think, because they only exaggerate the claustrophobia as experienced by our heroine, all packed into a fleet runtime that allows for no respite. The protagonist hasn’t left her apartment, except for that one errand, for days. The general loudness of her living space only heats up her unsteadiness into what will inevitably become an explosion. To usher in closure, Swinton’s character winds up burning down this apartment — she wants in her possession literally nothing that reminds her of the man who betrayed her. It’s the entrée to her preceding destructive appetizers: taking an ax to one of her lover’s prized suits; chucking a little gray statue decoration off the balcony. “The only words I’m keeping are the ones you spoke to me in person,” she determines over the phone.
The artificial muchness of the short’s look and emotional output deliberately has a performativeness, as is the case with Almodóvar’s more melodramatic-leaning movies. But in The Human Voice, this tension between reality and performance is especially noticeable — it's more playful. It’s made clear almost immediately that the Swinton character’s apartment is situated on a soundstage; it’s something of a sight gag seeing her smoke on the balcony, absorbing scenic views of ubiquitous concrete. The paradox is also prominently displayed in the film’s own material, given that the heroine is more partial to fabricating stories or making embellished declarations as opposed to telling her lover explicitly how she’s feeling on the phone. The short smartly depicts, as succinctly put by critic Alison Willmore, “how much a performance can be divorced from the sincere feelings that might be undergirding it.” Almodóvar feels like the natural keeper of the flame ignited by the colorful melodramas that thrived in the 1950s, which too, at their best, found a fascinating tension, both emotionally and presentationally, between the authentic and the synthetic.
This new adaptation of The Human Voice was conceived by Almodóvar last February, when the novel coronavirus was still but a secondary topic on most peoples’ lips. There has been much talk about how COVID life will be reflected — if it’s reflected at all — in entertainment made either during the pandemic or in its aftermath. While obviously not about COVID explicitly, The Human Voice nonetheless also makes for an accidentally evocative dramatization of the distinct brand of loneliness brought on by quarantine. Any big emotion feels more oppressive when you’re stuck inside, and when the person who might be one of its root causes — if not its root cause — can only be reached over the phone, closure feels especially evasive. “Escape or get out — aren’t they the same thing?” the protagonist asks her lover at one point. If there is any solace for the Swinton character — and for those quarantined who may relate to her feelings of being trapped — it’s the inevitability that, even though there isn’t an official date to a “new chapter," someday it will come. This prison of despair and uncertainty sure does feel like forever, though; sometimes you can't help but want to start a fire. A