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  • Julián Camilo Corzo Ochoa

The Human Voice, Pedro Almodóvar: A Review

‘I’d get nervous whenever I’d see a knife… It scared me to imagine I might be sticking a knife in your chest’.

This quote is one of the landmarks of the complicated but rich The Human Voice (El Deseo, 2020), Pedro Almodóvar’s latest short film starring Tilda Swinton. This portrait of a traumatized woman facing abandonment is based on Jean Cocteau’s original namesake play (1930) and set in Almodóvar’s beloved Madrid.

In this production, Swinton’s unnamed character — an actress involved in the advertisement industry where she is struggling due to her age — finds herself desperate after waiting for three days at home for her ex-lover to come and take his belongings. From there, the film takes us on a deep analysis of abandonment, and the connection between love and general well-being, through a telephone conversation. Correlated with this, the fact that this short was produced and released in the peak of COVID-19 crisis regulations not only validates the one-woman performance, but also gives relevance to the whole production.

Although the film is only thirty minutes, the majority of which are focused on Swinton's evocative acting, it still manages to deal with several important topics. The main interplaying themes are those of troubled love and mental health. The film encapsulates the psychological form of Amor Ferus(literary topic, in latin: wild love) in all its height; a love that not only makes you feel crazy, but also question your existence and the years spent in a relationship – with all its sacrifices implied. Underlying this and as a product of it, solitude and abandonment rise to occupy the deafening silences once the plot is revealed and the blunt reality of Swinton’s character is presented.

Almodóvar joins a debate that was until now largely ignored and that raises the importance of mental health, this time in the context of love. Love, being one of the most significant human feelings, enriches life and can be essential for mental stability. During a break-up, the painful detachment of feelings can lead to an extreme imbalance of the human psyche, intensified by the threatening aftermath of solitude. The result is a life that is scary and dreadful — as it is unknown and unexpected. This overwhelming reality can impact greatly to an individual, but also can be seen in a larger group of people. Our post-pandemic society has experienced something similar as our life switched to an unknown, unpleasant and dreadful reality. On this insightful analysis, co-relating individual and collective mental health, relies one of the strengths of this mid-pandemic production.

As well as exploring such intimate themes, the short film is rich with symbolism that is cleverly related with the message sent to the audience: a modern upper-middle class flat marks an environment containing marketing elements such as Apple’s Air pods, Chanel cases and Nespresso coffee machines. Showing the home as a refuge by fulfilling all these capitalist desires that can be adapted to almost any aspect of our daily life, a higher focus is set on the interplaying topics: material possessions cannot save from depression. Combined with the expensive furniture and artworks hanging on the walls, these form the materialistic symbols as seen and contrasted in other recent works by Almodóvar as Julieta (2016), Pain and Glory (2019) or Parallel mothers (2021).

On an emotional level, symbols are as varied as the presence of a dog representing the relationship that once was, a suit implying the absence of the masculine subject, and suitcases showing separation. Almodóvar is a master in this aspect – his films are well-known in carrying such emotional weight.

The technical aspects of this production are a signature sign of the late era of the director with his years-long collaborators. In the short, an illuminated and sometimes chiaroscuro cinematography/photography (José Luis Alcaine) and a passionate and concise music kept tidy (Alberto Iglesias, highlighting his work in Volver) live up to expectations.

Lastly, a special focus should be made on the performances in this short, where two major figures of international cinema come together. The legendary Tilda Swinton takes on a key role in a one-performer short — she brings a powerful and tender performance, allowing the audience to feel the unnamed woman’s pain, anxiety and broken heart as close as one could get. Her facial expressions in close shots and intensity shown in the climaxes of theatrical tension are simply world-class.

In The Human Voice, Pedro Almodóvar embarks on a big cinematic experiment, and it succeeds – showing off the genius he is. In a short kept organised, simple, and low-key, the action emerges as a volcano to destroy everything that is on its way, quite literally. It is inevitable to draw a connection between the situation lived by Swinton’s character and Almodóvar’s life “phagocytized” by cinema, as he mentioned in the Premios Feroz 2023. The feeling of liberation and relief is inherent to his films, and marks this short as a very recognizable work from the maestro, where one can feel his passion for theatre and film, how he has struggled since the beginning of the pandemic, and how he uses filmmaking as a refuge.

Almodóvar’s debut on English language gives us an excellent and insightful short to dedicate thirty minutes of our life to; to have compassion and understanding with people facing solitude and with the people behind the cameras and in front of the screen who may be suffering similar situations.

The Human Voice is currently available in BBC iPlayer and can be rented or purchased in Amazon Prime.

NB: hopefully no spoilers were made.

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