'The Human Voice' Review: Tilda Swinton Burns Up The Screen In Pedro Almodóvar's English-Language Debut [NYFF 2020]

In his 40-year career, Pedro Almodóvar was never tempted by the allure of the Hollywood lights to direct an English-language film, like so many of his international compatriots. The Spanish auteur's unique brand of candy-colored kitsch, of bold colors and even bolder emotions, would only be neutered under a Hollywood studio, which Almodóvar was probably well aware of. So it's fitting that he would only cross the language barrier under his own terms, in isolation, with the short film The Human Voice, anchored by a blazing performance from Tilda Swinton.

Almodóvar has had a longstanding fascination with The Human Voice — basing his 1988 breakout film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown on Jean Cocteau's 1930 play, a monodrama of an unraveling woman on the phone with her former lover. But with his 30-minute short film, Almodóvar lets star Swinton loose to deliver The Human Voice with a rarefied, searing intensity.

The film opens with Swinton in a bright red ballroom dress that balloons at her waist, standing morosely against a grey industrial backdrop. Her tearful expression turns to trepidation as she suddenly changes into a long black dress, swanning about this strange, lonely industrial space before we are taken to a hardware store where Swinton's nameless character is shopping for an axe. It's the last time we see Swinton interacting with other people, who mundanely mill about the unusually vibrant hardware store, shot in that oversaturated way that only Almodóvar could.

For the rest of the film, Swinton is alone with her dog Dash in her luxurious apartment, designed by Almodóvar's longterm production designer Antxón Gómez, who piles the space with plenty of Almodóvar-esque staples: the sculptural bookcases, the gaudy ornaments, the aggressively warm colors that can be seen in the orange bathroom tiles and matching towels. Swinton paces ceaselessly in silence — interrupted only by brief inner monologues that hint at a broken relationship — through this lush apartment in various stunning outfits designed by Sonia Grande, cutting a severe figure against the glamorous backdrop. A stony presence, Swinton prowls around the apartment like a trapped dog, while her actual dog whimpers, looking for someone before finally settling next to a fine suit laid out on the bed. A suit which is torn to shreds when Swinton suddenly takes the axe to it — the shock of destructive behavior waking us out of this luxuriant portrait we had found ourselves in.

There's a storm brewing in Swinton's face, which barely conceals an anguish that is unleashed when Swinton is woken from a slumber by a phone call after having downed several pills with a glass of wine. The phone call comes from her former lover, who after four happy but difficult years together, has left her and is calling to arrange for his things to be sent over. But because his voice is never heard, the conversation becomes an arresting monologue through which Swinton goes through the accelerated stages of grief — quickly moving from a cheery facade, to anger, to desperation, the love she still bears for this faceless ex-lover still shining through in her small smiles, her twinkly eyes. The words tumbling out of her lips unbidden turn into poetry in Swinton and Almodóvar's hands — giving artful form to the mess of emotions and despair that Swinton's character is going through. It made me think, for some reason, of a fairy tale about a girl who gives a benevolent fairy a drink of water, and is blessed — or maybe cursed — with jewels tumbling from her mouth whenever she speaks.

The team-up between Almodóvar and Swinton is miraculous to behold — in direct contrast to the earthy contrast of his favorite muse Penelope Cruz, but befitting the director's mature mode of filmmaking that he's shown in his Oscar-nominated masterwork Pain & Glory. Swinton is by nature a little ethereal and distant, but she quickly takes to Almodóvar's brand of self-aware melodrama.

"Clients love my pallor," Swinton says at one point with a self-deprecating smirk. "That mixture of madness and melancholy."

If The Human Voice seems more subdued than Almodóvar's usual camp madness, it's because the farce is on a subtler, but grander, scale. Swinton's glamorous apartment is built inside a giant studio soundstage, which Almodóvar regularly calls attention to, swinging the camera above Swinton's head to show the lack of ceilings, or setting the camera down behind Swinton as she peers out of her balcony at the grey industrial walls. Often Swinton will wander off the set into the bare industrial wasteland, sitting on a spare chair while looking at the richly decorated apartment. She's living in a doll house, putting her grief on display in the kind of melodramatic performance befitting an Almodóvar film. Is it for her? For us? Who can say? But it's a tremendously clever and meta way to use the short film's filming restrictions — The Human Voice was made during the coronavirus pandemic, under socially distanced precautions. It's an all-too fitting (but all-too short) film to be made during and about isolation, and how we, like Swinton, all want an audience.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10