The human voice is Tilda Swinton‘s, but the directorial voice is all Pedro Almodóvar in the Spanish legend’s half-hour, English-language “The Human Voice.” Freely adapting – read: ruthlessly modernizing and thoroughly Almodovarizing – the play by Jean Cocteau (material the director has circled around before, most evidently in “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “Law of Desire“), despite its brevity, his new film is deceptively roomy, allowing us to pace through the superbly upholstered rooms of the director’s recurrent obsessions with giddy, fluid freedom. Given his familiarity with the material, it can hardly be said to break new ground, so depending on your standpoint it’s either a delightful bauble accessorizing one of the most vibrant and idiosyncratic filmographies in the modern European canon, or a delightful key to unlocking same – an Almodóvarian 5-Hour-Energy shot delivered in 30 minutes. Either way, “The Human Voice” is a delight.
The slender story essentially takes us through the well-known seven stages of a breakup: despondency, bargaining, buying an ax, narcotics, hysteria, acceptance, and flaming hot catharsis. Our unnamed heroine (Swinton, once again molding her angularity so perfectly to the contours of a director’s eccentric vision that it seems somewhat incredible she has not been his longtime muse) has been abandoned by her lover of four years. His suitcases are packed, awaiting pickup, although one of his suits is laid out on their luxurious bed, as though he had been resting there at some point and just vaporized, leaving only his clothes behind. The woman, an actress, is waiting for him to call, waiting to see him one last time, trapped in the suspended animation of a relationship that is over but not fully finished, not before a few more things are said. She is alone in the apartment they shared, except for a similarly pining dog with the whimsically Disneyesque name of Dash (and seriously, if Cannes gives a Palme d’og, Dash’s agent should be very annoyed Venice doesn’t give out a Leone d’oggo.)
This is not a realistic breakup, as this is not a realist film, even judged against Almodóvar’s trademark boldly heightened conception of realism. From the first shot – of Swinton in a heart-stopping velvet ballgown in a shade of scarlet so vivid it leaves spots on your eyes when you look away – we’re made aware of the artifice of the location. The apartment in which most of the action takes place is gorgeously fitted out, furnished to lush, extravagant perfection, and built on a clearly visible soundstage. The “view of the city” from its terrace actually the view of a gray warehouse wall pocked with the ghostly remnants of tape marks from productions previous. At one point José Luis Alcaine‘s camera even floats over the top of the set, looking down into its ceiling-less rooms as though into a dollhouse.
This device is used partly to increase the sense of the actress’ isolation and vulnerability, but it has the side effect too of making a statement about loss, about how the end of love can feel, to the one who did not initiate the breakup, like being forced to perform to a script you did not write and do not fully believe in. Suddenly the familiar places you shared are made unfamiliar, a home can feel like it’s lost its soul and the shell that is left is just accurate mimicry, a simulation, an empty suit, a movie set.
The film’s Brechtian blush also gives Almodóvar some needed leeway in terms of the naturalism of the dialogue – the self-conscious theatricality means that the oddness of some of his second-language phrasing comes off as a charming feature rather than an irritating bug. Especially as delivered by Swinton, here reimagining the ancient tradition of the theatrical soliloquy as a one-sided hands-free phone call – such an inspired idea you might find yourself briefly imagining how all the great soliloquies would sound if they were actually phone calls to unheard recipients, think Hamlet preceding “to be or not to be” with a double-tap on his AirPod.
As it is, in the course of her chat with her lover (he does, finally, call) the woman gets to cajole and castigate, to beg and berate, to forgive and, almost in the same breath, retract that forgiveness. It’s hard to imagine another actress who could careen around these hairpin bends of emotion as elegantly as Swinton does, making the mix of broken poetry, deep anguish and playful reminiscing believable, even when it’s anything but naturalistic. She even gets, in her persona as a successful, aging actress, to take a few enjoyable meta-swipes at her own star image. Career-wise, the actress insists she’s doing fine: “Women of my age are in fashion again. Apparently, people like my pallor,” scoffs Swinton (59), palely.
As ever with Almodóvar, half the heavy lifting is done by the costuming, courtesy of Sonia Grande, and the art direction from Antxon Gómez, both of whom do God’s work with a no-max credit line in, according to the long list of acknowledged brands in the credits, Cartier, Hermès, Maison Margiela etc. Between them, they deliver truly jawdropping #cinema, like Swinton in cerulean blue, sunglasses and vertiginous heels buying a €50 ax in a hardware store, or Swinton in red ribbed knitwear against a green damask coverlet beneath a print of Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘“Venus and Cupid” with its swoop of striking blue. All this splendor, under a soaringly lush melodrama score from Alberto Iglesias, apparently weepy-drunk on specialty gin and Brahms, would surely be enough sink another filmmaker into self-seriousness. But this is Almodóvar, and so the magnificence is worn lightly, with irony and mischief and a cheeky little moral about how to be a modern woman trapped in the very unmodern role of spurned lover: be hysterical if you want, be philosophical if you can, but never underestimate the liberating power of a little light revenge. [A-]