Pedro Almodóvar has concocted a delicious short film despite the obstacles of filming during the Covid crisis. Clocking in at just 30 minutes, The Human Voice is an amuse bouche, whetting the palate and reminding viewers what a feast cinemagoing can be.
The drama is a monologue, loosely adapted from Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name, featuring a woman on the phone to a man she has been with for years and who has left her. Perhaps in homage to the play, Almodóvar has maintained a theatrical element: we see Tilda Swinton in a studio, the back of the set behind her. At one point the director films the action from above, from where we look down on the woman’s ‘apartment’ and at another we see earthenware being hurled from a balcony only for it to smash onto the studio floor. This popping in and out of the setting to show us its artifice runs throughout the film until the final, very satisfying scene.
There are plenty of trademark Almodóvar features to this short, the most obvious of which is his use of colour. From Swinton’s first fiery red velvet dress to the most miniscule objects that pack the apartment, the screen is filled with a feast of colour. Every outfit (ruby, teal, shimmering gold), every artwork (most notably Artemisia Gentileschi’s Venus and Cupid hanging over the bed) and every item (from the giant bottle of Chanel to the vibrant red coffee machine) is exquisitely positioned and lit. In fact, Chanel appears more than once, in some blatant product placement, but when it’s done this stylishly, who cares?
Tilda Swinton is being feted at the Venice festival this year, where she was awarded a lifetime achievement award. The Human Voice is the perfect way to celebrate the actor and her career, for Swinton alone (bar a wonderful dog) holds the audience in her grasp as she takes us from studio lot to apartment via the hardware store to pick up an axe, which she uses to great effect. Her performance here is perfect and there are some humorous nods to her own career, not just in the monologue but in the artefacts in the home (such as the huge David Bowie book nestled on the shelf behind her). She is funny, fragile, hysterical and brittle, and utterly absorbing. A perfect thirty minutes to remind us of the greatness of Almodovar and Swinton, and the joy of watching such perfection in a darkened movie theatre.