Movie Review ~ The Human Voice (2020)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A short film adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s one-act play. It follows a desperate woman who waits for the phone call of the lover who has just abandoned her.

Stars: Tilda Swinton, Agustín Almodóvar, Miguel Almodóvar, Pablo Almodóvar

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Rated: R

Running Length: 30 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I mean, let’s just get this out of the way first off.  Has there ever been a better trio of collaborators?  Pedro Almodóvar, Tilda Swinton, and Quarantine?  Seriously, who knows if it hadn’t been for this strange year we just experienced if a short film like The Human Voice would ever have happened.  I’m not sure I totally love the work as a whole but the artists involved are of such impeccable quality that you sort of just accept what they offer you and be glad they showed up at all.  How else would we ever be treated to an Oscar winning director and actress joining up and giving us a bite-sized version of their best and tastiest calling cards?  Our treats include such bon-bons as Almodóvar’s rich sense of color and eye for camera angles, Swinton’s never to be duplicated way for approaching a line reading and her ability to wear the most outrageous clothes and have it feel like she’s tromping around her house in sweatpants.  Visually, the film is no question a stunner…it’s all those pesky words that might derail you over its half hour running length.

Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monologue-drama has been seen on film (and in drama/speech competitions) numerous times but as adapted by Almodóvar it’s given a handy reading, at least in the stage actions of Swinton (Suspiria) as a spurned lover saying good-bye to her flame.  The lover is already gone and Swinton’s character isn’t taking it too well…that’s why an early trip to a hardware store sees Swinton buying a hefty axe that she uses to exercise some frustration on a suit she’s laid out on their bed.  (Side note: any film where Tilda Swinton buys an axe in the first ten minutes instantly merits a watch in my book…but, you do you.)  Then…a phone call.  Largely dialogue-free up until now, this is where Almodóvar’s film starts to get a little treacly and fartsy (not artsy) and not even Swinton’s dynamite costumes by Sonia Grande (The Lost City of Z) or the exquisite production design from Antxón Gómez (Pain and Glory) can pull it back.  It just sort of fails to go anywhere beyond the confines it sets for itself and with art direction so vibrant, it’s an odd dichotomy to work with.

That’s disappointing because for a thirty-minute film with a great pedigree, The Human Voice shouldn’t feel tough to sit through.  And, at times, it does.  On stage, I’d most certainly be enraptured in the presence of the actor playing the part and how they convey the feelings they are working with moving through this grief, but something is lost in the film we watch and the emotion that can’t come through the screen.  That’s not Swinton’s fault (because her reactions are not entirely what we anticipate) and I don’t even think it’s Almodóvar’s fault (seeing that he has conceived of it as more modern and speaking to the pandemic times we are living in)…it’s the piece itself.  So what we’re left with are a chorus of strong voices that harmonize for a time but gradually fall out of tune because of one discordant note.