The Human Voice, Pedro Almodóvar’s English language debut that recently played at NYFF, wasn’t intended to be the first film from a major filmmaker, with a major star, to be entirely filmed and distributed under COVID-19 restrictions, but it’s hard to think of a concept that would fit them better than this. Made from a screenplay Almodóvar adapted from Jean Cocteau’s play, The Human Voice, it was already a stripped back production that primarily relied on a single performance in one location so, despite restrictions on gatherings and distances that had to be maintained between people, with a stripped back crew and some minor reworkings of the script, production was able to be delayed from April to July then take place in less than two weeks. The result, though not one anyone would’ve conceived initially, is one of the most reassuring pieces of art I’ve encountered that proves that those who are dedicated will always find a way to execute their vision, regardless of the immense obstacles they may face.
Whether it’s one of a number of Hitchcock films, 12 Angry Men, Reservoir Dogs, Moon, or even something nigh unwatchable like Penny Dreadful, something about the limitations of a single setting film is always appealing to me and The Human Voice, a film set almost entirely in an apartment, is no exception. It always feels like the type of film I could make with the nothing budgets I could string together but done by someone a lot better at filmmaking than I am who I get to live vicariously through. The restrained nature is rarely a limitation though, instead an opportunity to explore a different side of filmmaking and the ideas that arise in that setting that wouldn’t come up in others. Here, with a film relying on one person’s ability to command the entire show, the limitations are greater than ever and so was my questioning of why I haven’t attempted something like this during my months of sitting alone in my apartment. The answer, of course, is that I haven’t a fraction of the talent Tilda Swinton does on the screen or that Pedro Almodóvar does behind it, talents on display like never before here.
Swinton is always a talented performer and has been able to take on a wide range of eclectic roles to great effect in the past, but here, as a woman breaking down after her husband left her, she steals the show like never before, and not just because she’s the only person in it. What we see is a telephone conversation between Swinton and the husband that left her, unfolding over Swinton’s airpods so we never hear the husband. Instead, Tilda Swinton gets to deliver a long monologue, presented as dialogue, where she plays both husband and wife, filling us in on every remark the unseen speaker is making. She initially starts fairly calm, trying to talk reasonably to the man she once loved while hiding her true thoughts from him, but as it goes on, she becomes more agitated and unpredictable, explaining her true state of mind and unleashing her anger and sadness at him. Meanwhile, the husband constantly snaps at her, pushing her further but remaining calm, at least in his own mind. Swinton gives us both of these tracks simultaneously and always makes it clear what both are thinking. She may have played multiple characters in Suspiria but, even there, they felt less distinct and much less real than these ones.
Though based on a play and operating like one, Almodóvar differentiates it from one by reminding us on a few occasions that we are watching a film, much like he did in last year’s Pain and Glory. The apartment the film takes place in was a built set in a studio but, on a few occasions, the film shows us the studio itself, showing that the walls are wooden with decorations only on one side, and at the end the studio doors open to the outside world. Were it a play on a stage, the viewer would see the fake nature of the sets immediately, but in a film, where we would generally never know, calling attention to it feels like a cinematic choice consistent with the rest of the film. It lets us know the film is only as real as we allow it to be, as are the relationships like the one we watch crumble, as are the limitations imposed upon us by pandemics and anything else. All we have to do is step beyond the barriers and seize control of our lives and anything can happen.
A NYFF Review 12 angry men alfred hitchcock jean cocteau moon 2009 new york film festival 2020 NYFF pain and glory pedro almodovar penny dreadful reservoir dogs suspiria 2018 the human voice 2020 tilda swinton