A new Pedro Almodóvar film is always cause for celebration. Even a short one, especially one that so carefully harkens back and deepens, in turn, the Spanish director’s longstanding fascinations. The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton and “freely based” on Jean Cocteau’s 1928 play by the same name, is pure Almodóvar. It’s both a potent distillation of his style and a ravishing summation of his thematic concerns.
Anyone who’s been watching Pedro’s films already knows he’s been obsessed with Cocteau’s La voix humaine for decades. His first major crossover film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, was all but a loose retelling of the French writer’s conceit. Almodóvar took the play, which focuses on a woman calling up her former lover who’s to marry someone else the next day, and turned it into a screwball comedy centered on a voice over actress (played by Carmen Maura) slowly losing it over a recent heartbreak. The year before he’d also made use of Cocteau: Law of Desire features Maura again, this time playing a trans actress, staging the play itself in an art-imitates-life moment where she draws inspiration from her own heartbreak.
Which is all to say: his return to Cocteau in 2020 feels of a piece with his recent work. His 21st century output, after all, feels driven by a desire to revisit and re-contextualize his early work: Volver all but echoes What Have I Done to Deserve This?; Bad Education recycled bits and pieces of Law of Desire; The Skin I Live In returned Banderas to his Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down era, and so and so forth. And yet, while Almodóvar’s collaboration with Tilda Swinton in The Human Voice may feel familiar (the film is as delectable a sensory experience as any you should expect from the filmmaker and his crew, which includes composer Alberto Iglesias and costume designer Sonia Grande) it is also quite novel. Not only is it his first English language project but it plays almost like a deconstructed stage play-cum-film, as if the filmmaker were toying with ways of breaking apart the very story he’s trying to tell.
As the woman in the short (as in the play she remains nameless), Swinton is an actress adrift in a soundstage, anxiously waltzing around her apartment, which we slowly see is merely a set with no roof. The imagery almost recalls a dollhouse and from the very first image, of Swinton in a ravishing red dress, you get the sense that this may well be a life-sized doll herself, pushed and pulled from shot to shot at Almodóvar’s will. As days flicker by and the Woman changes her clothes (she remains in monochrome tones throughout: here a red, there a black, now a striking blue), she heads to a hardware store, purchases an axe and then proceeds to hack away at a man’s suit in her own bedroom. In Pedro’s world, she is a woman on the verge. And try as she might to keep it together, she eventually fails.
The stagey conceit is perhaps what’s most fascinating about the piece. The filmmaker has explored the very essence of filmmaking before: Bad Education and Pain and Glory, for instance, were both centered on male directors and, in similar final twists, revealed themselves to have been filmic exercises all along. Almodóvar has never shied away from making his filmmaking be at the center of his storytelling. But it’s usually a gesture; the pans out in those films that reveal how what we’ve seen are actually films within the film being watched, for instance. Here, though, it’s central. As Swinton walks around this bare stage, with her Air Pods on as she chats away with her former lover, whose responses we’re not privy to, you can’t miss the way the Spanish director never wants you to forget that this is a constructed reality.
Yet Swinton’s performance, walking a tightrope between being a stagey diatribe and an inner monologue, grounds the film and makes it a mesmerizing thrill ride. Almodóvar may yank you away by suddenly shifting the Woman’s whereabouts but you never lose sight of the way these theatrical and cinematic flourishes merely amplify Swinton’s performance. The attention is always on her face and the ravaged emotions she telegraphs with gestures both subtle and grand. You feel her anguish, her pain, her anger.
As a “lockdown” film, as it’s been called given its spatial trappings and its anxious sensibility, The Human Voice is divine. But as an Almodovarian exercise that plunges us back into his earlier work, the short also feels like an experiment, a playful, meta-theatrical chance to play dress-up with Tilda and revisit a youthful obsession through the melancholy lens of Pedro’s later work. In essence, it’s pure undiluted Almodóvar and I desperately wanted more.