The Human Voice, 2020.
Co-written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar.
Starring Tilda Swinton.
A woman watches time passing next to the suitcases of her ex-lover (who is supposed to come pick them up, but never arrives) and a restless dog who doesn’t understand that his master has abandoned him. Two living beings facing abandonment.
All you need to make a movie is Tilda Swinton and an adorable dog, apparently. Pedro Almodóvar’s new short film is based on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play of the same name, which the filmmaker previously used as the primer for his 1988 breakthrough hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Swinton stars as a woman mourning the end of her relationship, left in her swanky apartment with the suitcases of her lover which he has failed to pick up, and his gorgeous, fidgety canine Dash. During a mere half-hour of screen time, the woman cycles through the various stages of grief as she attempts to come to terms with her new normal.
Filmed over the course of 12 days in July with all the necessary precautions of mid-pandemic filmmaking, The Human Voice confirms that talented artists can spin sure gold no matter the restrictions. Though hardly a Soderbergh-esque kitchen sink iPhone experiment, it’s still an impressive testament to what can be pulled together in dire circumstances at a time when larger productions were generally at a standstill.
And there’s certainly some current relatability to Swinton’s protagonist, who is doing “nothing these days but wait” as she sits tight for her ex, and per his absence is forced to give him a final farewell remotely (as many of us have done with far-flung friends in recent months).
But Almodóvar doesn’t create an overly intimate parallel with the present moment, crafting instead a deliriously frantic depiction of a woman coming apart at the seams and then, perhaps, deciding upon a self-sustaining path.
Though shot with Almodóvar’s typical skill – by way of the intentionally garish, oversaturated tones of his regular DP José Luis Alcaine – the short is carried almost entirely by the sheer free-wheeling presence of Swinton, whose voice is the only one we hear (the other side of the phone convo with her ex buried deep in her AirPods).
The dialogue doesn’t have much aspiration to direct realism, allowing Swinton to render the amusingly stagey verbiage in full-bodied terms, while Almodóvar smartly trains his camera close on the actress’ beautifully feline, slightly otherworldly features. A knowingly heightened score from another Almodóvar regular, Alberto Iglesias, meanwhile supplements mood by tapping into the short’s playful melodrama per an assortment of swirling string crescendos.
It is a magnetic performance from Swinton as a woman, yes, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and per its quasi-rhetorical format, serves up a most unexpected and unique collaboration between two of the most stridently singular artists working today.
An entrancingly strange one-hander and a fitting paean to the present global vibe of isolation and alienation. And like the very best shorts, it leaves you eager to see more.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.