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▶ The Human Voice is in cinemas from 19 May.
Despite everything, pandemic lockdown has been fruitful for Pedro Almodóvar, even though his adaptation of Lucía Berlín’s short stories A Manual for Cleaning Women had to be set aside owing to travel restrictions. He published his celebrated lockdown diaries, and wrote the script for his next Spanish-language feature film, Parallel Mothers, set in Madrid and located once more in the universe of motherhood – albeit, he says, from a perspective he’s never before adopted. (He’s now filming the production with Penélope Cruz, Julieta Serrano and Rossy de Palma.)
Before that, though, we are treated to his first English-language project, the luminous 30-minute short The Human Voice, which premiered in glittering style at a masked-up Venice Film Festival in September 2020 followed by a UK launch at the following month’s London Film Festival. (A planned November release was delayed by the UK’s subsequent lockdowns.)
As its opening credits state, The Human Voice is ‘freely based’ on a Jean Cocteau play from 1928 of the same title, in which a woman is dumped by phone by her ex-lover with whom she is still madly in love. It stars an otherworldly Tilda Swinton – a cross between David Bowie and Deborah Kerr, according to Almodóvar himself – as an emotionally trapped woman who retains her anonymity, just as in Cocteau’s play. Almodóvar not only fills the screen with a myriad of references to his films and the women who’ve starred in them, he drenches it in bursting colours, music and emotions, like a much-needed flickering feast.
“The Human Voice came about as a caprice. I didn’t think it was going to be released, so I thought of it as an experiment, an exquisite chamber piece to be seen by very few people,” a talkative, high-spirited Almodóvar tells me on the phone from his offices in Madrid.
Arguably the film’s defining feature is hearing an Almodóvar woman expressing her despair in Swinton’s precise English diction. So what led him to make his first film in English? “It all stems from a sense of freedom,” he relates. “To feel free with its duration of 30 minutes and, above all, the freedom to experiment with the English language and deal with whatever problems that might arise.”
Fortunately, Swinton’s passion during prep and filming and her trust in what Almodóvar refers to as his “word-by-word” direction eradicated about “75 per cent” of his fear of shooting in English. “What this short really proves is that I can direct Tilda Swinton in English,” he avers. “I’m not so sure that’d be the case with any other actors and actresses; but with Tilda I’d dare to do anything in English right now.”
Swinton is filmed mainly during a final phone conversation with her ex-lover (whose voice we never hear), riding a carousel of mixed emotions – exasperated, calm, hurt, strong, fierce, scared – as she tries in vain to anticipate what he may want to hear. The set is the flat she used to share with him, where she has metaphorically constructed her own prison, actually built on a huge soundstage and referred to by Almodóvar and his team as the ‘doll’s house’.
Swinton’s theatrical performance as she paces in and out of this doll’s house blurs the boundaries between theatre and cinema and captures perfectly “the feeling of solitude, darkness and pain in which she lives,” in Almodóvar’s words. She appears dwarfed by the studio where the set is built, shot from above at one point in order to reveal “the material with which artifice is created”, especially the absence of a horizon. For, as Almodóvar points out, she is looking out from her balcony at a wall instead of a skyline – a nod to the film-set balcony in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), not to mention the flowering balcony of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). “That was the initial idea when I started writing: a woman facing a wall.”
Like just about everything else, The Human Voice was interrupted by lockdown: after rehearsals finished on 14 March, when a state of emergency was declared in Spain, everything came to a halt. Filming finally started in July, but for Almodóvar: “There was a sense of uncertainty in following the rules, in making sure nobody in the team was infected, which created insecurity, the impression that you were playing the lottery and suddenly nobody would turn up.”
Surprisingly, Covid didn’t force any major changes to the script – but a particularly uncooperative collie dog named Dash did, prompting Almodóvar to significantly change the ending. The original draft had Swinton’s character sitting inside the studio with her ex-lover’s dog lying at her feet, watching flames engulf the set to the sounds of a bolero by 1950s Cuban star Bola de Nieve, about having your soul completely stolen by a particular type of love. Both dog and woman are in mourning for the same man: Almodóvar’s script had Swinton telling her ex-lover that she reads texts to his dog, “because this is not just any dog, this is a very sensitive dog”.
Except the dog wouldn’t stay by Swinton and was always on the lookout for his master. Hence, as the flames engulf the studio set, the new ending sees both woman and dog coming out into the street, as Tilda’s character literally grasps the reins of her own life and that of her ex-lover’s dog, leaving all the darkness and pain behind, instantly modernising Cocteau’s original text. As Almodóvar explains, “films change naturally during filming because it is a living process, and you have to make the most of that vitality and use it to your advantage.”
Cocteau’s play weaves in and out of Almodóvar’s filmography, referred to directly in Law of Desire (1986) and a shaping force on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But for me, the Almodóvar film that comes closest to the devotion and vulnerability exhibited by Swinton’s character in the new film is Marisa Paredes’s unforgettable turn in The Flower of My Secret (1995). Almodóvar agrees. “Tilda’s feeling is the same as Marisa’s in that film, and she too wears a red dress in her last encounter with her husband. The psychological state of the character, that defencelessness of an unrequited passion, that impotence; this is in Marisa’s character too.”
In The Human Voice, the red dress takes the form of a spectacular haute couture Balenciaga dome number that undulates as a gaunt and drained Swinton paces alone on the dusty sound stage, making her seem like a flowing, walking flame (as she confesses, “I am what’s burning, my love”). Too bulky for the stage set, the dress led to another script change – a mysterious, operatic prologue where a Lorquian Swinton is initially shot standing still behind a blurring panel, a painterly ghostly presence which conveys, says Almodóvar, “a woman looking as if she’s been forgotten there.”
In Venice, Swinton described her transformation as an immersive experience, akin to virtual reality. At first glance, her androgyny couldn’t be further removed from an Almodóvar woman. Commenting on the metamorphosis Swinton undertook for the film, he says: “I cannot speak about how much it took Tilda to adapt, but what I can say is that she did adapt from the word go, and with an insatiable appetite for my directions… It really was a question of osmosis between the two of us, what’s referred to as chemistry between director and actress; and it has been a long time since I last experienced that.”
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Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy