Life imitates art in Pedro Almódovar’s The Human Voice. Shot over the course of Spain’s national lockdown, Almódovar deftly reconfigures Jean Cocteau’s short play of the same title to suit the present aeon of isolation, digital companionship, and a dwindling sense of selfhood. Almódovar is the patriarch of camp melancholia, and his filmography is no stranger to detailed narratives of memory, passion, and femininity, and in The Human Voice, these themes are synthesised to theatrical excess.
Expectations for Almódovar’s first English-language film were mountainous, and its screening at the 64th London Film Festival is perhaps the festival’s most critical moment. Unsurprisingly, Almódovar’s English debut was a gift. His reimagining of Cocteau’s play postures Tilda Swinton as the mesmerising ‘voice’ of his short. The film begins with the camera behind a screen in partial view of Swinton wearing a Balenciaga red turtleneck gown, making for a breathtaking entry into the film’s percipient blend of artificiality and sublimity.
We come to register Swinton’s setting as a concrete warehouse, unsuspecting from Almódovar whose films are customarily set in lavish apartments. But this is Almódovar’s playfulness. Before the audience is too abstracted from the unlikely setting, they are plucked into a hardware store, following Swinton costumed in an androgynously high-camp suit, purchasing an axe. The enamour and unknowability of women and their chaotic decisions is one of the dearest aspects of Almódovar’s oeuvre — Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is autonomously, exuberantly feminine as tenderly inspired by telenovelas. Within the first two scenes of this short, Almódovar ticks off details one hopes to see from his filmmaking: hyper-extravagance and comic absurdity.
Upon Swinton’s return to the warehouse, we realise that there is a roofless apartment, much like a stage set, that occupies the middle of the concrete space. Swinton enters the apartment as wistfully as if it was within a typical apartment building, intimating its artifice. In a quick adjustment to this new interior, and by following Swinton’s character, we tour around the apartment, one crafted with glossy, Almódovarian indulgence: a coffee table is littered with editions of Capote, Kill Bill, Phantom Thread, Fitzgerald (a name-spotting treat for us), a man’s suit laid flat on a bed, and a draw full of pills in their prescriptive dispensers. It is these characterising visuals which predicate the monologue that will constitute the film’s subject: the intensity of a phone call with an ex-lover.
By making use of an expositional trope, a one-sided phone call and the audience’s exigency to piece together absent details, Almódovar affords Swinton a dialogue-turned-soliloquy which occupies most of the short. She directs her speech to the muted voice inside her AirPods, at first about her social life and drug-taking, her resolution ‘to be a practical woman’, recalling her nerves when in the presence of a knife just in case she sticks it through her lover’s chest. Her words are rich in meaning but with enough detaching madness to allow Almódovar to encapsulate the despairing theatrics of isolation. Every line is delivered with such a knife-edge that language engulfs the narrative — fabrications enmesh with truths, words carry a volatile punch.
Paying homage to its theatre origins, the monologue is both confessional and self-aware, and thus the audience straddles suspension of belief and a sense of objectivity towards its artifice. Aided by the casting of such a revered performer, Almódovar encourages the audience to never lose sight of how brilliant Swinton is as an actor, an actorly-ness in sync with the short’s splendorous camp. It tenderly reminds us we are watching fiction while indulging us in its spectacular complexities of feeling- line by line, moment by moment.
A balance of formal brilliance and raw, witty emotionality are Almódovar’s greatest successes as a director. With clear adoration for cinema, he emphasises film as visual art and how our very real emotional investments intersect with our appreciation of aesthetics. Almódovar has said ‘The Human Voice is a festival of Tilda, a display of her infinite and assorted registers as an actress’. What could be more resplendent than Tilda Swinton’s faultless, monologic performance to the backdrop of absurdism and camp? Pedro Almódovar directing this grandeur. It is absolutely enthralling for his English-speaking admirers that Almódovar’s English language debut is his most abundantly theatrical — it is a gift to behold in such internationally precarious times.