From the opening shot of The Human Voice, Pedro Almodóvar’s new adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1928 play, his appreciation and understanding of Tilda Swinton is palpable. Filmed during lockdown in Madrid, the short film begins with a dimly lit closeup of Swinton’s face. Then it follows her, wearing a velvet dress and cropped mess of orange hair, as she drifts across a bleak, industrial interior.
For the rest of the 30-minute film, Almodóvar etches out a similar story to Cocteau’s original, which is set in Paris. Rooted in desperation and loss, the French drama centres on a telephone call between a woman and an unseen, inaudible man who is leaving her to marry another woman. In Almodóvar’s version, Swinton plays the character known as the Woman, a seasoned actress whose lover of four years is physically absent from their home save for a vacant suit laid flat on the bed and a cluster of cases ready for collection.
After washing down a fistful of pills with some white wine, the Woman answers a call from her nameless ex-lover, and an indulgent muddle of clipped despair, forced indifference and a gradual swell of redemption ensues. With Swinton dominating the screen (at times alongside an immaculately groomed border collie), Almodóvar draws on past collaborations to craft a believable and opulent world. Fans will be familiar with Antxón Gómez’s eclectic, colourful production design, which is captured perfectly by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine. Elsewhere, costume designer Sonia Grande dresses Swinton in a poppy-red, ribbed trouser suit, TV set-sized sunglasses and, later, a grungy outfit that will make you weak at the knees.
As an early tester for filming in quarantine, The Human Voice succeeds by embracing its environment (rather than cutting, the camera frequently swoops over partitions or shoots from above). As the latest from Almodóvar, it’s a warm slice of contained melodrama with a welcome message: even in trying times, life is what you make it.
- Director: Pedro Almodóvar
- Starring: Tilda Swinton, Agustín Almodóvar, Miguel Almodóvar
- Release date: May 19 (UK cinemas)