If you’ve never seen a screen version of Jean Cocteau’s short one-hander The Human Voice before, this one, starring Tilda Swinton and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, is a good place to start.
There are plenty of others. Shelby Satterthwaite appeared in a Canadian version in 2019, Rosamund Pike in an adaptation by Patrick Kennedy in 2018. There’s a Spanish language one starring Karina Gidi from 2016, a sung version from 1985 with the soprano Elisabeth Söderström as “the Woman”, even one starring Ingrid Bergman from 1966 directed by Ted Kotcheff (who also gave us Rambo in First Blood, the great Aussie shocker Wake in Fright, and ur-bozo comedy Weekend at Bernie’s). A South African one, a French one starring Anouk Aimée from 1963, another starring Sophia Loren, the list goes on but has to also include Robert Rossellini’s 1948 film Amore, which used La Voce Umana (The Human Voice) as the first half of a two-parter about love. Anna Magnani starred.
The reason it keeps getting remade is partly because it costs nothing to put on – one actor, a phone, a room – but also because it offers the performer a chance to run through the emotional lexicon in a one-sided conversation with a never heard ex-lover at the other end of a phone line. Cocteau wrote it in response to criticism by actors that his stuff was just too “writerly”, with not enough space for an actor’s input.
Which takes us back to Swinton, who is first glimpsed clad in a voluminous red ballgown through a translucent diffusion screen on an obvious movie set, and is then caught clad in designer black stalking the empty sound stage before being tracked in a gliding shot through a toolshop where, now dressed entirely in blue, she buys an axe. DIY gear never looked so luxe.
After that, back to the Woman’s apartment, which could be Almodóvar’s own – it’s dotted with Miró-coloured objects, hints of Salvador Dalí, a massive old master on the wall, tasteful mid-century-modern furniture – where Swinton changes costume again, into red jersey, before taking an axe to a man’s black suit, laid out on her bed as if it were alive.
And then the phone call forming the bulk of the film’s short 30 minutes running time (some adaptations have squeezed as much as an hour out of the piece), which is exactly the sort of call you might make to an ex-lover, running from initially blithe and cool to more emotionally engaged, to anguished to accepting. The various stages of grief, more or less, with an end-of-relationship spin.
On the way the practical matter of what to do with the dog comes up – “You’re the one he wants,” says the Woman, pegging herself in this equation as the dog, one who is kicked but adores nonetheless.
It’s a vestige of Cocteau in Almodóvar’s adaptation (“freely adapted” the opening credits tell us), fully aware of the fact that the woman in this one-sided transactional conversation doesn’t have much agency. Almodóvar has also tidied away the fact that the two are speaking on the eve of the man’s wedding to someone else and in the process has lost some of the Woman’s more wrung-out moments of abject dependency.
Even so, the “Woman” is not at first glance the sort of strong woman a more fully modern treatment would be expected to deliver, and certainly not the sort of female Almodóvar has spent a career depicting in films (and Swinton playing). But he has a remedy for that, which we’ve already seen in the opening shot, and we’re reminded of his gambit throughout, in cutaways to overhead shots of the set – we’re not watching a woman being given her emotional marching orders by a man but an actor on an obvious set in full command of her performance.
It’s the last thing we see, too, Tilda Swinton – after a performance necessarily never quite tapping the emotional volcano – leaving the set and re-entering the real world, accompanied by the dog, who, she informs, had better get used to the fact that she’s his new master. Nice try.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021