NYFF 2020: ‘The Human Voice’ Review: A Sumptuous Solo Show

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“You always came back. Until three days ago.”

Pedro Almodóvar’s English-language debut The Human Voice is a mini-melodrama about madness and longing. Loosely based on Jean Cocteau’s play, it’s a one-hander with magnetic monologues delivered by the ever-excellent Tilda Swinton. Swinton portrays an actress who spends her days alone inside her gorgeous apartment (designed with panache by Almodóvar’s long-time production designer Antxón Gómez), hanging by the telephone awaiting a call from a lover who left her.

The short was filmed in two weeks in July 2020 during the ongoing difficulties of this coronavirus pandemic, so is timely in its protagonist’s self-isolation. Desperate for her lover but denied his presence, she kills time and distracts from the agony of waiting by running errands: she visits a shop to look at weapons, roams around her sumptuously decorated home, practices using her hatchet, and smashes things in her apartment while clad in dark sunglasses and a vivid, bold suit. Almodóvar’s work has long been obsessed with color and explosions of emotion, and The Human Voice is no different.

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Fitting to the film’s title, though, it’s voices, not visuals, that are front and center. Finally, the actress connects with her former lover, but we never see the man on the other end of the phone line. Instead, we hear Swinton’s voice alone as it loses steadiness as the woman delves deeper into their shared past, baring her soul to him. Because she wears AirPods, talking while sitting straight upright or while gliding around her apartment, it can often appear as if she is talking to herself. Swinton deftly performs this woman’s pleading attempts to retain normalcy and talk herself down from madness, and her presence burns up the screen as all the pain and passion flare up. As she attempts to reckon with his departure, she resolves to cope with her pain — “I accept everything,” she says, but based on how the rest of the conversation goes, we’re not convinced. The editing starts to grow increasingly violent and frenetic as she shares her fears of harming someone, and features jump cuts and repetitive actions, replaying fragments of images over and over to convey her obsessive loops of thought. 

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As she says herself, the void and the violence can be intensely attractive, and we cannot help but agree: this woman is immensely pleasurable to watch and listen to even as she becomes terrified of herself and what she might do. Patient but then frantic, composed but soon fiery, she starts to entirely unravel, and Almodóvar gives Swinton ample room to move through her character’s psyche.

The Human Voice feels particularly pointed in its depiction of seclusion and a woman who demands an audience. The melodrama is tremendously self-aware, putting grief and anguish on display for our pleasure. Each word is scorching, and Swinton never chews the decedent scenery… even though there is plenty of it to chew on.

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