The new short by Pedro Almodóvar makes the bold statement that getting dumped sucks. ‘Freely adapted’ (in the words of the credits) from a play by Jean Cocteau, The Human Voice whips by in a svelte, perfectly engineered thirty minutes that would leave me hungry for more if it wasn’t such a complete piece. Almodóvar was all set to start filming in April, but a troublesome little global pandemic meant that production only began in July, yet the enigmatic Spaniard seems to have found some inspiration in the isolation of quarantine. The Human Voice takes place in an almost sinfully well-decorated apartment, but the apartment itself is built within a soundstage; seen from above many of the rooms don’t even have ceilings. This isn’t some avant garde nightmare though, the fish-tank artifice just serves to heighten the disconnection and physical alienation the woman who lives inside feels from the world outside her gilded cage of a home. In a quarantined world, I think we can all relate.
The woman in question is Tilda Swinton, essentially playing a heightened version of her public persona: brittle and almost aggressively stylish. Swinton (she’s credited as ‘Woman’ so let’s just use her real name) has just been walked out on by her partner of three years and she’s not taking it well. Prowling through the apartment like a caged tiger, she seems on the knife edge between self-obliterating sorrow and apocalyptic rage. As the film starts, we see her outside the cavernous soundstage that houses her apartment precisely once: purchasing an axe from a slightly perturbed salesman who wraps it in brown paper like a gift. One gets the feeling that this axe was not purchased so that Swinton can explore a lifelong interest in lumberjacking. Alone in her apartment with nothing but a depressed dog, her ex’s uncollected bags and the shiny new axe, there’s not much to keep Swinton occupied apart from what’s in the medicine cabinet. Until, that is, her ex calls and things really get started.
We can’t hear the ex’s side of the conversation but between the tight script and Swinton’s swing-for-the-fences acting it almost feels like we can. She runs the full breakup gamut, from blazing righteous anger to pathetic pleading and by the time the credits roll you completely understand what makes this blazing chateau of a woman tick. The Human Voice has been adapted for the screen before, most notably by Roberto Rossellini in 1948, and in those adaptations the phone cord has curtailed movement like a dog’s leash. Almodóvar on the other hand simply has Swinton pop her AirPods in and throughout the conversation she’s loose to surge through the rat run of the apartment as the mood and rhythm strikes. Visually it’s unsurprisingly gorgeous, with the director’s burning colours on full display, and with a dark counterpoint in Alberto Iglesias’s tense and ghostly score, but this is all just window dressing for Swinton’s compelling portrait of Almodóvar’s most recent Woman on the Verge. Short, spiky and immediately compelling, The Human Voice is a half an hour very well spent.