A woman in a scarlet dress with a large hoop skirt strolls around an empty soundstage. On the stage is her spacious apartment. The apartment has several rooms, each one decorated with bright colors and paintings of nude women. Thanks to overhead shots, we can see that the apartment is not an apartment but a set. The woman uses the apartment like an apartment but frequently wanders outside it and on to the soundstage. Is this real or make-believe for her? Does it matter?
She is Tilda Swinton, and it’s your guess if she’s playing Tilda Swinton or a character. She talks on her phone to an ex-lover who has left. We never hear who she is talking to, just her. In one shot, she ventures out of the apartment and on to the soundstage, pausing in front of a large green curtain. She is talking about a friend who suffers from vertigo. There’s a key moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo that involves the color green. Could this be a reference? The music by Alberto Iglesias sure sounds like something Bernard Herrmann would be proud of. And what Swinton does to her lover’s suits would make Uncle Alfred proud.
Running a swift 30 minutes, The Human Voice provides many provocations but is short on resolutions. Directed by Pedro Almodóvar, The Human Voice is a cinematic adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play, La voix humaine. “Freely based,” in Almodóvar’s parlance. He and Swinton made the short during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic with a small crew and a supporting cast comprised of Almodóvar’s family.
The Human Voice is an odd duck. Almodóvar’s command of color, music, and melodrama is evident, as is Swinton’s ability to convey dialogue with conviction. But the story doesn’t go anywhere or do much. Watch an Almodóvar feature, and you’ll be shocked by how much he packs in there. But he also has the luxury of time to bring about a satisfying conclusion. And time and satisfaction are the two things missing from The Human Voice.
The Human Voice (2020)
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Based on the play, La voix humaine by Jean Cocteau
Produced by Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García
Starring: Tilda Swinton
Sony Pictures Classics, Rated R, Running time 30 minutes, Opens March 19, 2021.