Tuesday 18 May 2021

She's on the phone: "The Human Voice"

These are - and you don't need me to tell you this - strange times. Pedro Almodóvar has marked the moment with a prestige short, shot during lockdown, which returns this filmmaker to Jean Cocteau's 1930 monologue
La Voix Humaine, briefly featured in 1987's Law of Desire. Over the thirty minutes of The Human Voice, that same monologue forms the basis of a one-woman show: it's a highly strung Tilda Swinton, found inside a typically desirable Almodóvarian apartment (someone's doubtless already assembled a wishlist of the books and DVDs gracing the shelves and coffee table), embarking on a fraught series of telephonic negotiations with an absent, errant lover. The lover - now an ex, we gather - is represented by a suit laid out like a corpse on the woman's bed (at one point, we see our jilted heroine attack the clothes with a knife) and by suitcases left behind in the hallway; the phone calls - largely one-sided affairs, pleading for a return to normality and/or civility - paint a picture of a troubled state of mind. With the exception of her loyal dog Dash, this woman is alone. 

Why return to Cocteau and this text now? One possible answer would be that two of the defining features of the post-Covid world are absence and distance. If the lover represents the absence, the distance is suggested by a masterly overhead shot around the short's halfway mark that reveals the apartment the Swinton character is moving through to be a temporary construction: a Covid-secure environment alighted upon to fill time and space. (The first time we see Swinton, she's walking onto an empty soundstage, looking - as so many in the creative arts now are - for something worthwhile to do.) The specific circumstances of The Human Voice's production in early 2020 are thereby folded into the film itself. Clearly, the vibrant party scenes of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the intimacy of Live Flesh, and the grand theatrical flourishes of Talk to Her are out of reach; The Human Voice is all too aware it can only ever be partial Pedro, atomised Almodóvar. Its heroine is even more solitary than the director played by Antonio Banderas in 2019's Pain & Glory, shown rifling through cupboards for pills that might numb either bodily hurt or some vaguer existential dread. Still, we worry about her, if only because it makes a change from worrying about ourselves and our loved ones. I don't think it'd be unfair to say this isn't the subtlest performance Swinton has ever given: she goes after the role, and the emotion contained within it, like someone who's come out of lockdown and seen an old friend for the first time in months. Yet it may be for precisely that reason that The Human Voice emerges as so touching. This is a film that greets and embraces us like a long-time pal: a relic of the before-times, set out in its director's comfortingly familiar style, which also serves as a model for the ways in which film production, cinema, art and life can, will and must go on. Almodóvar has signed his name to some very moving images and projects in recent years. For reasons few of us could have predicted going into 2020, The Human Voice ranks among the most moving of them all.

The Human Voice screens in selected cinemas tomorrow night for one night only, followed by a Q&A with Almodóvar and Swinton, hosted by Mark Kermode.


  1. Great review. I know the work only from the Poulenc operatic version. I shall seek this out avidly.

    1. Thank you! Hope you enjoy it, once you've tracked it down.