The Human Voice (2020)

Pedro Almodóvar’s 30-minute short The Human Voice is a brisk, stylish melodrama with typically commanding performance from Tilda Swinton (her dog’s good too). The colours pop out the screen.

A loose reimagining of Jean Cocteau’s short play of the same name, Swinton plays a woman alone in her flat after the end of a four-year relationship. After an initial excursion to a hardware shop to buy an axe (!), the rest of the film is set in her stunning apartment.

Swinton is great. Much of the film is a monologue during phone calls with her (unheard) ex-lover as she moves from tense to reassuring to despairing. She commands our attention entirely, with her voice and her physical acting, her character is a jittery mess. Even her slight frame is put to good use, wryly observing that her active metabolism has never made nervous over-eating a problem.

The colours and costumes are sumptuous

As usual with Almodóvar, the set design and costumes are sumptuous and colourful. Except for her shopping trip where she dons a cool blue dress, Swinton is clothed in red – an extravagant fairy-tale dress, a ribbed roll-net sweater and a red-patterned dressing gown. These reds are set off against the green walls of the apartment.

The set design for the apartment itself is enviably stunning, a visual feast. Although the camera stays with Swinton as she paces between rooms, my eye was constantly enjoying the technicolour set, the furniture, decorations, art books, kitchen utensils, ornaments, all stylishly curated as a believable expression of Swinton’s character. It’s as important to the film as Swinton’s own performance. Pertinently, during lockdown we’ve all probably spent more time contemplating our own living quarters.

The set design is a glorious technicolour expression of Swinton’s character

Almodóvar doesn’t hide the theatricality. The apartment is a set constructed in a sound studio, and the camera (and Swinton) regularly leave the set to wander around the studio itself, the timber constructions exposed and artificial, like the famously two-dimensional street facades in a western. The drama moves with us, and the ending is reminiscent of the conclusion The Souvenir where the lead (played by Swinton’s daughter, coincidentally) walks out of the aircraft hanger that was used as the film set into the daylight, highlighting the artifice of what we’ve seen before.

This is the second film adaptation of the Cocteau play. The first forms the first half of Roberto Rossellini’s little-known 1948 portmanteau film L’Amore in which the protagonist is played by Anna Magnani. L’Amore was a flop critically and commercially. Filmed during a break from his neo-Realist classic Germany: Year Zero, the critical indifference was perhaps because Rossellini’s first experiment in psychology was an unexpected deviation in style.

Anna Magnani on the telephone in Una Voce Umana, the first part of L’Amore

It’s interesting to compare the two versions, over seventy years apart. I enjoyed both.

Magnani’s performance is more expressively melodramatic and outwardly intense, almost histrionic; Swinton’s is more measured you feel she is on a knife-edge of disintegration, on the verge of losing control.

In Rossellini’s film, the camera though mobile is mostly close-ups of Magnani’s tortured face, while Almodóvar has the camera survey the apartment as an extension of her personality. And tonally, the older film is intense, pained and anguished, while Almodóvar allows us to luxuriate in the film’s style as we enjoy Swinton’s performance. Almodóvar’s film is a refreshing delight that was over all too quickly.

The Human Voice will show in UK cinemas with an extended filmed Q&A on 7th and 8th November 2020. Rossellini’s L’Amore is available on BFI Player.

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