One of the projects I was really excited to watch was this half an hour short film written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar based on a play of the same name by Jean Cocteau. Premiering at this year’s Venice Film Festival, I was so excited to see that it was included in the London Film Festival line-up and knew I had to watch it. Starring the incredible Tilda Swinton as a nameless Woman whose mental health diminishes as her partner goes missing for three days. With the exception of a scene near the beginning in which Swinton’s character buys an axe from a hardware store, she is the only character onscreen. Primarily set in her luxurious apartment filled with glamorous clothes and modern art placed everywhere, it would seem that the character has a life worth dreaming but we soon learn that this is a mask for something much darker.
In true Almodóvar style, there is a heavy focus on the setting and a strong visual aesthetic that usually is more telling than the dialogue. The attic apartment the woman lives in is clearly a set within a warehouse. This highlights that like all the luxurious goods she owns that the materials are all fake. What Almodóvar does brilliantly is an analytical breakdown of a character that is shown little by little like a puzzle piece. Even when presenting a short film, it is filled with so much story and character analysis that a lot of features miss out. The script is action based in the first act before becoming dominated by what could be described as a monologue as the Woman talks to her estranged partner but we only hear her side. The way the camera follows the Woman from above and completely exposes the set is a fantastic artistic choice as well. It really plays into that feeling of the Woman being trapped inside a doll’s house and being stuck in her own little world.
Tilde Swinton is always a tour de force in whatever she does and this film is definitely a collaboration between her and Almodóvar. It makes perfect sense that they would work together. Her performance is, as expected, executed to perfection. Her magnetism draws you and you want to understand the character and get to know her. When she receives a call from her estranged partner, she plugs in her wireless earphones to talk to him. We don’t hear anything he says only her response. It is during this increasingly intense conversation that the mask begins to slip and cracks start to show. We understand her actions and why she has bought the axe and attacked the bed with it. The apartment clearly acts like a bird cage that the Woman cannot seem to escape from even though she knows that her relationship has come to an end. As she progresses in her conversation, she finds herself unwilling to dominate control over her partner and finds herself constantly apologising and submitting to his every whim. It is when he appears to hang up at a tender moment that breaks her and she is able to break away from his and regain her control. Although it may seem simple to be in a film by yourself, it is actually the opposite and Swinton knocks out a performance that I would argue is among her best.
The music composed by Alberto Iglesias is breathtaking and elevates the film to that dramatic and cinematic level. As the Woman lingers around the house and ventures to the hardware store, the score is what provides that ambience. The music allows the unspoken words to come through and is ever increasing in tension as the build up to the phone conversation takes place. It really assisted in heightening the drama and expressing the loneliness and mental fragility that the Woman feels.
Despite only being thirty minutes, this has proven to be one of the highlights of the festival for me. Almodóvar can always be relied on to deliver a project that is captivating and thrilling with a hint of horror without actually showing gore. His control as a filmmaker is superb and not everyone could pull off such a complex project in a way that feels so cinematic and artistic. The Human Voice is a reflection not only of what one can do with limited resources but that great cinema can be created with the pandemic restrictions.
The Human Voice is showing at BFI London Film Festival on the 17th October and will be released in the United Kingdom on the 6th November.