A woman stands with her back to us, her body tall in a scarlet ball gown. Behind a chroma screen-turned-opera curtain, she turns her head to the right and saunters across what appears to be an abandoned lot or stage set, her hoop skirt swinging like a bell. From the waist down she’s a Christmas ornament, a halved persimmon, a ruby jellyfish floating toward the light. In the next shot, a medium close-up, her short, chestnut locks are mussed, her eyes dejectedly aimed at the floor. The crimson of her dress transforms into a heavy cloak of funereal black. No amount of beauty can save this woman — or can it?
Perhaps no premise is better suited to Pedro Almodóvar, whose first English-language film, The Human Voice, offers heady pathos and sumptuous visuals in equal excess. Starring Tilda Swinton and filmed in Madrid last summer, The Human Voice slaps 2021 out of lockdown gloom with a leopard-print stiletto. It feels appropriate that it’s set almost entirely indoors, where the audience follows a lone woman in the wake of a romantic breakup, her lover’s dog providing anxious company. Boasting feature-length thrills and sensual pleasure in a taut 30 minutes, the film arrives alongside a digitally restored version of the director’s 1988 smash hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, its clear thematic predecessor.
Unsurprisingly, Swinton makes tending a broken heart look devastatingly glamorous — smoking from the garden of a rooftop terrace, shattering vases to smithereens, washing down a handful of pills with a glass of vino blanco. What does a woman scorned wear when buying a hatchet? A cerulean turtleneck pantsuit, of course. And a pair of dark shades, worn inside the hardware store (where Almodóvar himself makes a cheeky cameo). “You always came back. Until three days ago,” she says to her absent beloved in voiceover in the following scene, just before axing his blazer while wearing a red, ribbed-knit turtleneck.
According to its opening credits, the film is “freely based” on the 1930 Jean Cocteau play of the same name, a monodrama about a young woman who learns over the phone that her lover is marrying another woman. Yet A Human Voice feels somehow fresher — more human, even — by plumbing the feelings of betrayal in a woman less past her prime than past the notion of “prime” as a relevant construct. When at last her lover calls in the middle of the night, we can infer from her responses that this unnamed woman is, herself, an actor of some renown. “Timeless beauty,” she jokes darkly, of her agent’s renewed interest in her career. “The clients love my pallor. Mixture of madness and melancholy … but, if that’s what sells now ….”
This double shot of delirium and despair manifests in both the woman’s costuming and the baroque spaces in which she plots her revenge. Broad-shouldered, lanky, and nearly six feet in height, Swinton shouldn’t look so good in a hyper-femme Balenciaga hoop skirt, but it endows her sorrow with a regal heft from the start. Her body and visage are mirrored by the art objects in her apartment: a wire bustier dress mannequin, a glass heart sculpture a la Jeff Koons. The swoon-worthy interior of the home — the domestic equivalent of an absinthe cocktail — is framed within a conspicuous set; continuity edits merge the mise-en-scene of the heroine’s lavish residence with its bare, industrial surroundings. Emerald curtains billow in the cavernous background, while the flat is decked out in jacquard sheets, brocaded rugs, and a shower head that gleams like a chandelier. Shot by shot, the film is painterly in its devotion to detail. “I suffer like an animal, but I enjoyed like an animal,” she tells her lover. As ever, Almodóvar offers an aesthetic antidote to pain; the decadent is redemptive.
Throughout her telephone exchange, Swinton’s androgynous build and physiognomy are offset by a fragile demeanor, her voice shifting from cavalier to vulnerable to hostile as things heat up on the other line. “I never thought life would adapt to my desires . ..and I’m not fooling myself,” she calmly avers early on, only to jab, minutes later, “You can be violent, but you don’t like blood, wherever it comes from” at the man who seems to have “forgotten she was a woman” — a sly sendup of Cocteau’s misogyny, which the film seeks to redress.
“I have adapted to my way of conceiving a contemporary woman, insane with love for a man … but with sufficient moral autonomy so as not to bow down to him,” Almodóvar emphasized in the film’s press kit. “She isn’t a submissive woman, as in the original text. She can’t be, given the times in which we live.” From Narnia’s White Witch to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to Michael Clayton’s cutthroat corporate lawyer, Swinton has long proven a master of the mercurial, and The Human Voice revels in her flair for furious transformation. Who hasn’t wanted to toss gasoline all over precious objects, to tower over everything in four-inch platform boots, a silver Zippo at the ready? By the end of this one-act tour-de-force, her onscreen reckoning culminates in a fiery spectacle.
“In the future, I’m going to be a practical woman for a change,” the woman declares to her disloyal beau about midway through the film. Thankfully, Almodóvar doesn’t let us believe that. And why on earth would we want to?
The Human Voice is now playing in select theaters.