fb-pixel Skip to main content
MOVIE REVIEW

‘The Human Voice’: an Almodóvar marvel, short on length, long on everything else

Tilda Swinton in "The Human Voice."
Tilda Swinton in "The Human Voice."©ElDeseo. Photo by Iglesias Mas. Sony Pictures Classics

“The Human Voice” is a gift from the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. It comes in a very small box — a movie only half an hour in length — but it opens up into an absurdly rich emotional epic, like one of those camper vans that turns into a house. The film is playing at the Kendall Square, paired with the director’s 1988 breakthrough, “Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” and if you’re vaccinated or open to risk, I would urge you to see it on the big screen. The colors and costumes and sets pop with pop-art vibrancy; it turns the act of watching into an experience of the highest sensuality. If this is the first movie you choose to see in a theater after a year in hiding, it may be enough to renew your faith in cinema.

Advertisement



And then there’s Tilda Swinton. She’s the whole show; her and a dog, a playful and observant Australian Shepherd named Dash. “The Human Voice” is an adaptation of the 1930 Jean Cocteau play of the same name; to be precise, it’s a reduction in the culinary sense, with half the volume but the same intensity of flavor. A woman stands on stage and speaks on the phone for an hour, desperately trying to talk an unseen and unheard lover out of leaving her. Ranging through what seems like every possible emotion available to a human being, the monologue is a dramatic marathon for an actress and a fascinating change of pace for Swinton. Her roles tend to the imperious end of the spectrum, and rarely has she appeared as vulnerable — well, imperiously vulnerable — as she does here.

Almodóvar used the Cocteau play as a springboard for “Women on the Verge,” too, only where that film fizzed over with farcical complications, “The Human Voice” sticks closer to the text and to the play’s innate artificiality. Swinton’s character — known only as “the Woman” — lives in a swank, art-filled apartment that is quickly revealed to be a set on a film soundstage, with the actress wandering in and out of the nested realities. She’s briefly out in the real world, too, in an opening sequence that sees her visiting a hardware store to buy a hatchet. (No one buys a potential murder weapon with as much sangfroid as Tilda Swinton.)

Advertisement



Tilda Swinton in "The Human Voice."
Tilda Swinton in "The Human Voice."©ElDeseo. Photo by Iglesias Mas. Sony Pictures Classics

Dressed in a pantsuit so red it sears the eyeballs, the Woman spends the first half of the film smashing crockery, attacking her lover’s suits, and considering a handful of gorgeously art-directed pills. Every so often, the camera drifts above the set to look down, as if we were God watching Joan Crawford in “The Sims.” The cinematographer is José Luis Alcaine, and he and the director frame each shot with a care, a rightness, that feels like great art; the score by Alberto Iglesias shifts imperturbably from classical delicacy to Hitchcockian forebodings to the swooning strings of high ’50s melodrama.

The monologue proper kicks in at around the 11-minute mark, but what does it matter what she says? “The Human Voice” is an aria spoken rather than sung, and its aim is to convince — to convince the lover to stay, to convince the Woman he’s worth it, to convince herself she’s worth it. Swinton plays the role like a gifted pianist, hitting notes of anger, lust, self-pity, self-deception, pride, abasement, neediness, scorn. In a line like “I suffered like an animal, but I enjoyed like an animal,” we hear a great narcissist building the legend she’ll carry around for the rest of her life. When she says, quietly, “I know this is your last call, and that you’ll never call again,” we somehow hear capitulation and triumph in the same words.

Advertisement



Tilda Swinton in "The Human Voice."
Tilda Swinton in "The Human Voice."©ElDeseo. Photo Iglesias Mas. Sony Pictures Classics

“The Human Voice” ends on a note of great satisfaction (especially if you’re a dog lover), but the experience of the movie as a whole is the greater one. Almodóvar is in his early 70s now, and on the evidence of this film and his most recent feature, “Pain and Glory” (2019), his craft has reached a rare level of concentrated ease. As with an earlier Spanish master, Luis Buñuel, the late films are spare yet rich, pruned of all extraneous matter except the matter at hand — the delights of bourgeois folly for Buñuel, the unbearable tragicomic beauty of living for Almodóvar. “The Human Voice” is a banquet disguised as a light lunch, heady with flavors; you come away blissfully sated and hungry for more.

★★★★

THE HUMAN VOICE

Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, based on the play by Jean Cocteau. Starring Tilda Swinton. At Kendall Square. R (drug content, nude images).



Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.