Movie Review – The Human Voice

The Human Voice (2020)
Written by Jean Cocteau & Pedro Almodovar
Directed by Pedro Almodovar

The present COVID-19 global pandemic has forced those in the film industry to change many of their practices. From production to distribution, those who are forward-thinking are adjusting to a world where the traditional exhibition of movies just isn’t going to be possible for a while. I have been most pleased to see many film festivals offering limited virtual viewings of the film they show this year. I will likely never travel to Vancouver, Toronto, or New York City to attend their respective film festivals, but I am willing to pay to view festival circuit films in my home. The Human Voice is the first picture I have viewed in this manner, and it has made me excited to do it again.

The Human Voice is the first English-language film by the legendary Pedro Almodovar. It is a short film, though, clocking in at thirty minutes, but it feels like a full plate. This isn’t Almodovar’s first time using the play written by Jean Cocteau, either. That was in his first major film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The play is a simple one-person performance, an actor on the phone with a former lover and breaking down as they are coming to terms with never seeing this partner again. For this short film adaptation, Almodovar chose Tilda Swinton to anchor the entire picture, and it is a beautiful choice.

The director embraces a stage production artifice by putting Swinton on a soundstage with an apartment that, when we glimpse from a crane shot above, is an elaborately constructed set. Like the director’s body of work, oversaturated colors play a significant part in the film’s atmosphere. The apartment Swinton dwells in immediately reminded me of Salvador’s home in Pain & Glory, more a collection of bold artifacts than a house. Swinton even comments on this at one point during the phone conversation, lying to her ex that she has gone out and bought practical things for their former home together and that she will become a more practical person.

As a result, the apartment interiors’ warmth contrasts with the heavy emotional weight of the turmoil Swinton is going through. Her only acting partner for the majority of the short film is Dash, a wonderfully emotive dog. The entire piece speaks to the depth of Swinton’s craft carrying on a phone conversation with a non-existent person but convincing us to fully believe there is a person on the other end of the phone. The character she plays is an aging, but glamorous actress, struggling to find work as signs of her age become apparent to casting directors. In many ways, she feels like she is playing an alternate universe of herself, a mixture of her real-life if it played out in the melodramatic world of Almodovar. At one point, she tells her ex-lover, “Clients love my pallor. That mixture of madness and melancholy.”

It is very refreshing to see Almodovar working with a director far outside his regular stable of performers, all of whom are excellent but have become familiar fixtures in his work. The humor is subtler here than in the director’s more farcical features, which play to Swinton’s strengths. At specific points during her phone conversation, particularly as it begins to wrap up, and she realizes that her dramatic declarations and veiled threats against herself aren’t bringing her lover back, I began to tear up. It is a testament to her skill that she can develop a role so richly that it evokes that sort of emotion without being manipulative in half an hour.

Overall, I was a big fan of the New York International Film Festival’s choice to offer online viewings. I couldn’t catch everything I wanted to see, but looking ahead at other festivals this year, I should have more chances. I plan to grab a spot for Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, which is making big waves on the festival circuit this year. If you are a film lover but can’t make it to these venues, I highly recommend trying out the virtual option if offered. It adds a particular specialness to the film viewing experience that I realized I had been missing almost all year.

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