▶︎ The Human Voice screens in the BFI London Film Festival Shorts programme with an introduction and Q&A with Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton on 17 October 2020.

Like machinery driving a dramatic artefact of clockwork precision, wrenches, bolts and tools of all shapes and sizes slide onto the screen for the credits of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest creation, a half-hour free adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton.

Right from the start, this Human Voice strikes familiar chords with Almodóvar’s work: its vibrant colour palette; Alberto Iglesias’s music; a cameo from producer brother Agustín Almodóvar; even those credits, composed from items fit for an haute-couture hardware catalogue. Then there’s the protagonist: a heartbroken woman caged in a red dress. We find Swinton’s character on an empty sound stage, contemplating the void that her absent lover has left.

Almodóvar had already used The Human Voice (famously adapted by Roberto Rossellini in his 1948 anthology film L’Amore, starring Anna Magnani) as a source of inspiration for earlier films like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), with Carmen Maura playing an abandoned woman – a role echoing the one she had previously played in a stage version of Cocteau’s play that featured in The Law of Desire (1987).

In Almodóvar’s new take on the play, Tilda Swinton actually speaks the phrase “the law of desire” – which fans will also recognise as inspiring the name of the director’s production company El Deseo. In the new film, Swinton’s character inhabits an apartment revealed as a film set – the fourth wall, and indeed the ceiling, removed in an overhead shot.

Her props: DVDs including Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows (one of Almodóvar’s classic references), books by authors including Lucia Berlin and Alice Munro (who inspired his 2016 film Julieta), a handful of sleeping pills, an axe to chop the empty suit of her lover, and Air Pods for the last phone conversation with the man who left her behind. She paces, as trapped and lost as the dog that follows her about, the animal seemingly as distraught as she at the loss of this invisible man whom we never hear.

It’s Swinton’s voice that reigns in this perfectly tailored space, carved with the delicacy of a Fabergé egg – her human imperfection filling the stage with life, not its imitation. Swinton offers a magnificent, fine-tuned performance as a melodrama heroine ready to take her grief in hand, triumphant in her desolation, finally ready to move on and rise – and not just metaphorically – like a phoenix from the ashes of her lost passion.

As much as it is Almodóvar’s filmography in a nutshell, The Human Voice is also a promise of new beginnings, exploring the short format and shooting in English (his upcoming projects even include plans for a western). Maybe that’s why, at the film’s end, he frames the open door of the film set, letting us, and his heroine, out onto a wide world of new possibility.

Originally published: 11 September 2020