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

I am an Amazon affiliate









© Steve Morrissey 2021







Friendship’s Death

Bill Paterson and Tilda Swinton

 

There’s been a slight revival of interest in Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death since the London Film Festival chose it as one of the items they wanted to pluck from obscurity by showcasing it in their 2020 Treasures section, alongside films such as The Cheaters, an Australian silent thriller from 1929, and Chess of the Wind (aka Shatranj-e Baad), a 1976 film shining a light on pre-revolutionary Iran.

Besides which Friendship’s Death – British, from 1987 and starring very known quantities Bill Paterson and Tilda Swinton – seems a bit of a damp squib, even if it was one of film theorist Wollen’s few directorial credits.

A loose description isn’t likely to cause priapic excitement either – old-school journalist Sullivan (Paterson) is holed up with a woman he’s just met in Jordan, while the civil war rages and the PLO try one of their periodic attempts to change the political dynamic.

Meanwhile, inside the hotel where they’re stuck, Sullivan and Friendship have a lot of time to chat, which they do, pretty much non-stop. The end.

There is more to it than that. Surprisingly, Friendship tells Sullivan that she is in fact a robot sent by an alien civilisation. She was heading to the Massachsetts Institute of Technology but got blown off course and ended up in this war zone. As far as Sullivan is concerned, Friendship is either nuts or a spy but she’s easy on the eye and interesting to talk to, and so he indulges her. There’s not much else to do.

And so they talk. About the PLO, her planet, where all life as we know it is dead and only the technological survives, about the “nuclear winter” that wiped everything out and about how organic life forms are in any case just a “lift-off phase” for the next phase in evolution – the electronic phase. En passant, Friendship informs Sullivan that not only is she incapable of sex (nothing down there, no liquids in her body anyway) but she finds the whole concept of “intromittent organs” just kind of odd.

This all leads on to a conversation about pleasure as somehow being definitive of human existence, in what might be called a Captain Kirk glitch in the philosophical matrix, though to be honest I think I was hooked by “intromittent organs”, pronounced by Swinton with just enough precision that we didn’t hear “intermittent organs” by accident, but with just enough looseness that we know Friendship speaks like this all the time.

 

Bill Paterson and Tilda Swinton
Examining the alien for metal fatigue

 

They are a good match this Scottish couple, Paterson and Swinton – he already the master of rhythmic Caledonian delivery, she almost unrecognisably puppy-fatty and new to the biz (she’d debuted in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio the year before) but already mostly in command of that Swinton hauteur – intermittently, you could say.

Writer/director Peter Wollen, who only died not long ago (December 2019) aged 81, was supposedly one of the writers on Antonioni’s The Passenger (I say supposedly because there are a lot of fingers in that pie) and in my more fanciful moments I could see Paterson and Swinton as later versions of Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, who also spend a fair deal of time chinwagging in a hotel room at one point.

It’s all set in one room, and shot in a boxy almost-TV format, but Wollen makes an effort to stop things getting too stagey – the camera starts each scene from a different position, the visual suggesting other changes. And the lighting is gorgeously done, washes of complementary colour laid on by the obviously talented Polish cinematographer Witold Stok.

Even so, staginess persists. Or a mannered style, if you prefer. Considered thoughts are expressed in proper sentences and Paterson and Swinton never speak over each other. No one says “er”. It is a demonstration of the play (which is what it is) as a vehicle for ideas rather than as excitement or entertainment. This was the 1980s and though the avant garde was dead, its influence persisted as a postmodern chimera.

As to what the idea is… at one point Friendship speaks in Arabic and even dons what looks slightly like Palestinian headgear, so she might be the “alien” speaking truth unto power, except that there is precious little of that.

There is some prescient technological stuff, particularly towards the end when Sullivan’s daughter – in an epilogue scene – describes digital storage technology in a way that seems much more 21st century than 1987 (floppy disks were then still cutting edge).

Evocative, charming, well acted… all very interesting. The LFF must have chosen it for other reasons…

 

 

Friendship’s Death – watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Snowpiercer

John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in Snowpiercer

 

That sound? The plane taking off from LAX taking a great Asian director back home, sobbing with disappointment. It happened to John Woo, who did at least manage to crank out Face/Off, but his sad run of Hollywood films include Windtalkers, Mission: Impossible II and Hard Target. To the Pang brothers too, whose The Eye was one of the attention-grabbers of 2002. They came to Hollywood, made The Messengers for Sam Raimi, then put their tail between their legs and went home.

So what about the latest Asian import, the great South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, whose uniquely flavoured movies include Memories of Murder, a killer-thriller-whodunit whose cops get their man more by brutality and naked luck than sleuthing. Or The Host, a monster movie in which the hero doesn’t so much step forward, as find that everyone else has taken a step back. How is Mr Bong going to go down in a town where irony is a dish best served not at all?

The answer is Snowpiercer, an adaptation of the 1982 cult French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, a post-apocalyptic thriller set on board a train of 1,001 carriages that has been travelling non-stop for 17 years through a world that is entirely frozen. Outside, the passengers are told, everything is extinct. Inside, the train is run on feudal Orwellian lines, with the bosses at the front, the proles at the back, and a massive system of repression, propaganda and eventism keeping everyone, but mostly the proles, on-message.

The uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Curtis (Chris Evans) and sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), emboldened by ragged spiritual mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) to make a break for the front of the train and either overthrow the Big Brother-style leader Wilford (Ed Harris) or convince him at least of the need for a little more gravy down the back end.

Post-apocalypse, little men against a corrupt leader, steampunk technology, a quest: we’ve seen films like this a lot over the decades, often starring Arnie or Will Smith or Tom Cruise, films that pause to crack a wry one-liner but are otherwise propulsive, fairly humourless and full of action and dead bodies.

The first sign that Bong isn’t quite making that sort of film comes early on, with the arrival of Mason (Tilda Swinton), one of Wilford’s henchpeople, who has come down from the front to the back to the train – and looks very unhappy about it too – to nip rebellion in the bud. In a convoluted speech Mason contemptuously tells the rear-dwellers that they should be happy with their lot, that everyone has their role and, pushing an ill-chosen metaphor beyond breaking point, that “I am the hat; you are the shoe”, all this while a miscreant is having his arm frozen off by exposure to the outside elements, pour encourager les autres. It’s the sort of scene you can imagine being in Total Recall, except that screenwriters Kelly Masterson and Bong Joon Ho have other ideas: Swinton comes equipped with a comic northern English accent, a face full of big teeth and her coat is constantly slipping off her shoulders.

The whole film is like this – familiar sci-fi tropes undermined by Bong’s oblique strategies.

I’m not going to explain the film’s entire plot, except to say that Curtis, Edgar, their ragged-trousered team and a couple of South Koreans (Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung) they’ve woken from cryo-sleep do indeed make a dash for the front, each carriage a marvel of Wachowski-esque set design (one’s a classroom teaching elite kids, another is a vast glass house hydroponically growing crops, another is a bespoke tailor’s, another a dentist, a nightclub, a cocktail bar), through a train whose metaphorical purpose couldn’t be made more explicit if the word “allegory” were flashing up on screen every few minutes.

It is a fantastic, fabulous, ludicrous and lovely film to look at, and as Curtis and crew battle forwards they are assailed by bullets, bombs and even a medieval axe attack in one entirely blacked-out carriage. But one great, breathtaking and fanatically detailed scene followed by another doesn’t necessarily equal a great film. And that’s the case here. Partly this is Evans’s fault – he’s likeable but lacks heroic charisma. But mostly it’s because I think Bong wanted it that way. For example, in the middle of the medieval axe fight the combatants pause to wish each other a happy new year. Bong is deliberately subverting the heroic action blockbuster with little human touches (the slipping coat) at almost every turn.

But this deviously ironic film insisting on nuance where the genre generally goes for broad brush isn’t helped – is undermined, in fact – by its blunderbuss approach to satire. In particular the final long rambling “explains it all” speech by Wilford that more or less throws away the claims to specialness that the film has carefully wrought. Is this Bong’s doing? Masterson’s? The studio’s?

Snowpiercer isn’t boring, and there’s really nothing to touch it for production design and world-building. File it next to the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas in the drawer marked Mad Brilliant Messes with a Thumping Message.

Bong’s next film is being made in South Korea.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014