For the times of lockdown, Pedro Almódovar’s new short film is perhaps the most viable and relevant type of film production: a tale of someone isolated, regretful, anxious, unable to tell whether current arrangements are contingent or permanent, retreating into gestures of self-immolating despair. This theatrical piece is loosely based on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 stage play of the same name. It was adapted by Rossellini in the 40s, and also proved to be a jumping-off point for Almódovar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Tilda Swinton plays a woman who is on the verge of something similar. Or maybe the verge is now long behind her. She is living in what appears to be an apartment in Spain, vividly and richly presented in soupy reds and oranges that pop on the screen, with a hint of retro – decor that could exist only in an Almódovar picture. The play has this woman speaking on the telephone, in anguish, to the lover who has just left her – and that’s what Swinton does, too, only with cordless earphones, while his bags are packed ready to go in the hall, and his dog, miserable and confused to be abandoned as well, leaps trustingly along behind her as she strides restlessly about the flat or down to a hardware store to buy an axe. She needs it for a bit of futile pseudo-violence, whose only effect can be to make her feel worse.
Almódovar deconstructs both the woman’s state of mind – and perhaps his own emotional rhetoric as well – by at first keeping his camera well within this apartment and then by moving above it, revealing it to be a ceiling-less set constructed within the cavernous sound stage we see at the beginning of the film, some of whose kitchen drawers don’t open, and some of whose shelf adornments are fake. Like the woman’s life together with this departed man, this apartment is a phoney.
The woman is beautiful, elegant, evidently a star of stage and screen, or a model – at any rate, she is talking wryly about how her mature looks are now fashionable again: producers now want her at the moment that her lover feels the opposite. She speaks in a kind of muted, hyper-cerebralised depression and rage, but seems only to want a real, face-to-face goodbye – isn’t it the least he can do? We might assume that she is the injured party and that he has strayed. But at one moment she concedes that you might call her an “adventuress”. So perhaps things aren’t all that clear.
Swinton’s delivery has a theatrical style – it very much feels as if we could be watching a stage show – and there is something frozenly despairing about it; it is the voice of someone who is unwilling to relinquish her dignity or rationality and just give in to an aria of sadness. Even taking pills doesn’t completely allow her to let go – and there is something incidentally very sweet about the dog waking her up by slurpingly licking her ear. But she jiu-jitsus her loneliness and desertion into the raw material for performance and for self-expression.
An elegant jeu d’ésprit from Almódovar, with a bleak hint that moving on from the present malaise will mean some kind of wholesale destruction.
• The Human Voice is released on 19 May in cinemas, with a Q&A with Tilda Swinton and Pedro Almódovar.