The Human Voice

Tilda Swinton with axe

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.

The "Woman" at home
At home with the “Woman”

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.

The Human Voice – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Penelope Cruz in Volver

Pedro Almodóvar is bang back on form in a film celebrating a way of life he’s spent the best part of his artistic life revolting against – family centred, non-cosmopolitan, conservative, Catholic. Well, Generalissimo Franco has been dead a while now.
The word Volver means “return” in Spanish, and if Almodóvar is returning to something he long ago rejected – with a fair degree of tenderness (ah, maturity) – Penelope Cruz is also back in a Spanish speaking role, in her home country, in the sort of film she started out in, a drama with its feet in familiar soil but its head who knows where (see Abre los Ojos).
It’s set in one of those small, bright Spanish towns with a large cemetery at its edge, where the women do all the hard work and the dead are always present among the living. Almodóvar making this doubly clear with a detail – in this town women don’t fully depart this life even when they’re dead, and might well take up residence with a relative, helping out with the cooking when they are supposed to be resting in the ground. Riding this dividing line between death and life is Raimunda (Cruz), a mother who works as a cleaner and is forced to pull on the apron and clean up the blood after her own daughter stabs her father to death after he made an advance on her.
What are we watching – a comedy, a thriller, a feminist fairy tale, a magic-realist ghost movie, or what? From the colour palette of bright colours and red in particular, the heightened emotions, it looks most like the sort of film Douglas Sirk used to make in the 1950s, Sirk being a sort of godfather to the young gay directors who came a generation later.
With Sirk we always knew where we were – elbow deep in melodrama, emotional blood and guts everywhere – but Almodóvar has added the wrinkle of genre obfuscation and keeps us guessing, thematically tracking the whodunit of the plot with the whatisit of the genre.
On both levels he succeeds, delivering his best film in years, Cruz also majestic as the knockout beauty to whose face and body a life of drudgery has added a blowsy allure.
This is a “dive in an enjoy” sort of film, a rich thing of texture to be devoured visually. Look out for the constant imagery of things rotating, revolving, returning – Almodóvar has made peace with his past, but on his own terms. File alongside All About My Mother as the very best of his work.


Volver – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
© Steve Morrissey 2007