It is based on a Jean Cocteau play from 1930, but Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice could well be the movie that best captures our bizarre modern times. Being Almodóvar, it does so with consummate elegance, controlled melodrama and enviable home decor, but this one-room, one-person, half-hour piece somehow expresses both our own feelings of domestic isolation and the unstable ground of cinema itself.
The set-up speaks to our lockdown neuroses: Tilda Swinton indoors, alone and increasingly distraught. She is on a phone call with her ex, though we only hear her end of the conversation as she pads about her tasteful apartment wearing AirPods and an array of haute couture outfits. There are cultural trappings galore: her DVDs (Douglas Sirk, Kill Bill), art books, Chanel bags, paintings (De Chirico, Alberto Vargas). Even the axe she buys looks designer.
But Almodóvar makes it clear that none of this is real. The apartment is just a set on an industrial-looking soundstage. We often see it from the outside, or from overhead. Swinton is kind of playing herself – “the clients love my pallor. That mixture of madness and melancholy,” she says – but she’s also a fictional, quintessentially “Almodóvarian” character: another woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
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Like many film-makers, Almodóvar and Swinton were operating under constrained, Covid-proofed conditions. This era will be marked in history by a preponderance of minimal, self-made or skeleton-crewed movies. Already we’ve had Netflix’s Homemade: a series of lockdown movies from the likes of Kristen Stewart, Gurinder Chadha and Paolo Sorrentino. Not to mention ITV’s Isolation Stories, and a host of short films (The Forgotten C, on living with terminal cancer during Covid, is particularly sobering). This Friday also sees the release of Nick Cave’s Idiot Prayer, a concert movie performed alone in an empty Alexandra Palace. And in December we’ve got the ingenious Zoom-shot horror Host.
At the Venice film festival, Almodóvar said the pandemic has “shown us our homes are a place where we’re somehow imprisoned, because we can find the love of our life there, work there, have food delivered, and we don’t need to move from our homes to do all this. I find this very dangerous.” The antidote, he suggested, is going out to the cinema. “It is the opposite of all that.” Although many of us understandably prefer to watch movies at home right now.
The Human Voice could be seen as Almodóvar embracing the ironies. The movie is set in the spaces of both the home and the cinema, and asks if there’s still a difference. Fittingly, Swinton resolves things at the climax in her own cathartic, violent, yet tastefully designed way. Hopefully cinema can do something similar.