NYFF58: “The Human Voice” turns the empty into intimate

The Human Voice Tilda Swinton in "The Human Voice." (New York Film Festival)

Pedro Almodóvar’s adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s one-act play is an expansive, carefully constructed half-hour.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 58th New York Film Festival.)

In Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Human Voice,” Tilda Swinton plays a woman who lives in a house packed to the brim with grim extravagance. It also sits within a vast warehouse. The Spanish auteur has never had a problem getting theatrical, but in his 30-minute adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s one-act play of the same name, Almodóvar and Swinton expertly stage this material into an exciting, compact package. Where so many features (not to mention prestigious TV episodes) needlessly pad themselves out, this short film refuses to waste your time.

We only leave Swinton’s home once, for a trip to the hardware store. I won’t spoil her shopping list, but it’s the only time “The Human Voice” lets us hear anyone else. The actor plays an unnamed, scorned lover who quickly retreats to her plush prison. Multi-million dollar paintings hang from the walls. The red of their sofa pops off the screen. The dark blues of her long-gone spouse’s custom suit radiate wealth and taste. Almodóvar’s camera captures every inch of the colorful, expensive emptiness.

For Swinton’s character, these things have lost their allure, their meaning too. Their home—her home now—may be lush, but with only a dog to keep her company it all feels like a void. Of course, the fact that Almodóvar’s placed her house inside a bare industrial space doesn’t help. Through voiceover, we hear that much of her relationship has revolved around waiting. Her behavior’s a last gasp, a final repeat of a pattern as Swinton perches by her phone, waiting for a call.

Almodóvar’s camera captures every inch of the colorful, expensive emptiness.

Her ex does eventually ring, but only to say goodbye. Wearing a pair of AirPods, Swinton paces and loops around her place, keeping their conversation going in starts and circles. We don’t hear the other party; the focus remains squarely on Swinton and the progression of her emotions. Almodóvar has located a very specific post-breakup atmosphere as our heroine bargains, reevaluates, and eventually accepts her circumstances. Dread hangs over almost all of the brief runtime—or maybe the worst has already come and gone.

Relatively speaking, “The Human Voice” doesn’t give much room for character growth. Because of the length, Almodóvar introduces the heroine and leads her to a single choice. Swinton’s magnetic as ever, as irresistible as her surroundings. Together, she and Almodóvar bring this woman and this moment to life, crafting a short that feels both theatrical and cinematic, simultaneously expressionist and down-to-earth. Perhaps a house inside a warehouse wouldn’t be so nice after all.

“The Human Voice” Clip:

Jonah Koslofsky
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