Pedro Almodóvar’s intoxicating English-language debut, the thirty-minute short film The Human Voice, is “freely based on” the play by Jean Cocteau that was first staged in Paris in 1930, which the filmmaker previously referenced in 1987’s Law of Desire, and initially inspired him to write 1988’s Women On the Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. A digitally restored version of the latter feature accompanied by The Human Voice will open in theaters in a limited release this Friday March 12th, with a subsequent expansion to independent theaters across the US. Following its festival run at Venice, New York, and London The Human Voice is on the Oscar short list for the Best Live Action Short Film, with the final list of nominated films for the 93rd Academy Awards to be announced on Monday March 15th.
Tilda Swinton stars as Her, a woman who has been waiting for her boyfriend of several years to call for the last three days, with his packed bags and his dog beside her. As the film opens we see her impeccably dressed in Balenciaga, but rather like a resplendent Miss Havisham, she is dressed up to the nines with nowhere to go. She does briefly leave the apartment though to make a mysterious purchase, paid for in cash, an axe.
With a vibrant palette of signature Almodóvar colours, the apartment that the woman inhabits is stylish and pristine, like a designer show home photographed for a luxury magazine. An aerial shot reveals that it is in fact a set on a soundstage, and the view from her balcony is of a soundstage interior wall. Although disconcerting, this reveal and subsequent shots within the soundstage itself unexpectedly don’t add a layer of artificiality that distracts from the character’s plight or give us a sense that this is a scenario that is being filmed, but rather heighten the intensity of the woman’s solitude and emotional state. There is a performative aspect though to the character’s speech when her boyfriend finally does call, as she initially tries to convince him that she’s been out every night enjoying herself rather than waiting for him.
Swinton makes the most of every beat in this measured, delicious monologue of a woman scorned, going through every emotion in her attempt to sway her lover to change his mind, while gradually and powerfully regaining her fierce independence. It is a riveting, nuanced, breathtaking piece of acting, delivered with precision and subtlety, and Almodóvar provides a sumptuous, mesmerizing framework to house and amplify her performance.
José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography with plenty of closeups is beautifully fluid and along with Teresa Font’s editing matches the breathes and beats of Swinton’s masterful work. Frequent Almodóvar collaborator Alberto Iglesias revisits some of his musical themes from Broken Embraces, Bad Education, Talk To Her and I’m So Excited! for the score and the film itself, although in English, is a celebration of all things Almodóvar with a fascinating, slightly unhinged protagonist at its centre. It’s a brooding delight.
By James Kleinmann
The Human Voice opens in theaters with a digitally restored version of Women On the Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown in a limited release this Friday March 12th, with an expansion to independent theaters across the US to follow.