There have been suggestions that Pedro Almodovar’s English language debut The Human Voice is a film which captures some of the sentiment of lockdown. Starring Tilda Swinton alongside Dash the dog, and ‘freely based’ upon the Jean Cocteau play of the same name, the short follows Swinton’s character trying to reconcile with both herself and her lover through various telephone calls after he has decided to leave her. She waits inside the apartment in a kind of limbo, where While in the play it is specified that this is because he is marrying another woman, Almodovar never answers the question of why he has chosen to leave, and instead leaves Swinton marinating in emotional uncertainty.
Swinton occupies a carefully designed apartment, one with art deco chairs, lush green bed sheets and a huge print of the Gentileschi painting Venus and Cupid hanging above the bed. The camera frames Swinton within the apartment’s four walls, pacing and fiddling with her collection of Blu-Rays, until a pan reveals that the apartment is a set built upon an empty sound stage. There is nothing beyond the apartment aside from According the Architectural Digest Almodovar wanted the set to invoke a ‘love nest’, and for all the well thought out design the apartment does not feel lived in. Full of character, yes, but not lived in. Perhaps the lovers picked out the furnishings together, as there sits two chairs side by side, but the apartment bears no pictures of the two of them together, no real sign that it was ever a home rather than a transitory space. As Swinton paces, Dash at her side, switching between phoning her unseen once lover and trying to physically work through her range of complex emotions.
For the first ten minutes, Swinton seems trapped in the apartment, until the camera pans and reveals that it is built inside a soundstage. Outside of it’s walls there is no street, no other people, just one large empty room. In one particularly poignant moment, she goes onto what would be a balcony in order to water the plants but there is no view, just the black wall of the sound studio. However, Swinton’s as ever ethereal screen presence allows for the difficult negotiation of space to seem almost natural, and for the juxtaposition between a carefully curated inside space and non-existent outside section to be controlled with ease. What results is a multifaceted, carefully controlled, mediation between the way in which we occupy spaces while grieving.
As I stated at the beginning of this review, there have been comparisons made between this film and the COVID lockdown. However, there comes a point where one cannot compare every film about a person trapped alone with their thoughts released across the pandemic to the lockdown. They are not all the ‘perfect’ films that capture the entire sentiment of the pandemic, nor should they be broadly lumped in with the ‘pandemic feeling’ that is often referred to. Instead, The Human Voice deals with a very specific type of emotional isolation, one brought about by the sudden loss of someone you love and the need to rediscover how to live and who you are without them. Perhaps, for some, this will capture the pandemic’s sentiment, but if not that doesn’t stop The Human Voice being a powerful exercise in the grief, anger and despair of one woman.
The Human Voice is in cinemas on May 19