January 2024


Almodóvar Short Films Part 2:
The Human Voice with Tilda Swinton

Renate Stendhal

The release of a double-bill by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar combines his two latest short films and an interview. I reviewed part 1, his gay Western, Strange Way of Life, last month.

The second half-hour film, The Human Voice, was filmed during Covid and released (but not distributed) in 29029. It takes up another cultural icon: Jean Cocteau's one-act play La voix humaine (The Human Voice). The play served as the libretto for Francis Poulenc's 40-minute opera of the same name from 1958. Nothing is happening apart from a woman ("Elle") speaking on the phone to a lover who just abandoned her. The only structural element is provided by the repetitive phone disconnections caused by the rudimentary technology of a hundred years ago.

I have never liked La Voix humaine, neither Poulenc's disruptive score nor Cocteau's female protagonist – a stereotypical victim of the male imagination. As Cocteau was gay his play begs to be seen as a parody of exaggerated femininity in the style of a transvestite show, but I haven't yet seen a production that went "camp" with the hysterical tears and self-loathing ("It is all my fault"), the fake attempted suicide, and other traits of the proverbial "door mat."

All great sopranos of the past and present have tackled the role, and Almodóvar got the outstanding British actress Tilda Swinton (Caravaggio, Orlando, I am Love) to star in his adaptation of the play. He had the good sense to rewrite and shorten the tedious, repetitive phone conversation by half. He is instantly ironic as much as iconic: we see the woman walking in an exorbitant orange-red crinoline dress in a dirty cement hangar. She takes her shimmering volumes behind a screen as if to point to the separation between theatricality and realism, between operatic drama and silver screen cool.

There is something timeless to the end of any affair. The next scene shows Swinton in a medieval black dress that has the thickness of a depression. She walks in clunky shoes like a penitent of some punishing religion – let's call it love.

We spend a full ten minutes with her before the phone rings. First, she enters a hardware store with a dog on a leash, now in a cerulean blue pants suit, looking like a super model asking for an axe. The puzzled sales clerk adds to the Hitchcockian frisson: the abandoned woman with a murder weapon! It's as promising as when the abandoned heroine of Almodóvar'sWomen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown laces the gazpacho for her guests with handfuls of Xanax.

She wields her axe with fury – not at the faithless lover, however. She hacks at his dark-blue suit which she has neatly laid out on his side of the bed. The symbolic act satisfies in several ways: as a sign of revolt, perhaps even voodoo revenge, and as the comic absurdity of a pulp fiction meltdown. The lover's suitcases are lined up in the hall as a last bait (another amusing reference to Women on the Verge). Her apartment is an Almodóvar showcase: the designer furniture and accessories are as obsessively stylish and creative as the director's own home—which we got to see in his pre-Covid autobiographical feature, Pain and Glory. Here again, he uses some of his own (two leopard-print chairs, for example) as if decorating a secondary residence.

The director likes to claim that his sets are as important as his protagonists. Several large paintings cover the walls. These paintings of couples and nudes are the only sexual presence in the film -- they are oversized, melodramatic and a bit kitschy. One of them is Artemisia Gentileschi's Venus and Amor, painted in a style one could regard as 17th century soft porn. The loss of sexuality and intimacy is implied by the plush sets that contrast with Swinton's mostly restrained, almost cool style of acting.

She calmly perfects her makeup and dresses in a red knitted bodysuit. Then, looking glamorous, she takes a few red, yellow and white pills and reclines on the bed. Not a tear. The dog acts out the drama of longing in her place: he sniffs at the suitcases and runs back and forth through the apartment, whining for his master.

The masterless dog licks her awake, the phone rings, she totters over and the one-sided conversation begins. As in Cocteau's play, she  pretends she is perfectly fine – she went out with a friend, she went to see her shrink, she heard from her agent and reports that women her age are back in demand (well, not with him, alas). In short, she constructs a picture of proud independence -- until it sinks in that this call is his sneaky way of saying good-bye over the phone, for good.

Instead of showing her go through the roof, Almodóvar does the opposite: the camera swings upwards and reveals there is no roof. We are looking down on the apartment in birds eye view, like looking at a dollhouse from above. It's a stage set constructed inside the huge hangar that is in fact a sound stage.

The effect is funny and enlightening: Everything in this drama (and perhaps in all love stories) is a construct, a show, a fiction. A fiction held up by the conventions of furnishings and fashion. The whole edifice of passion is ironically held up by the nuts and bolts of the hardware store. As so often with Almodóvar's cinematic design, the opening credits – with all the hammers and nails, saws and pliers – reveal the "moral of the story."

But this time, the woman is not left behind in tears, whispering endlessly, "I love you…I love you… I love you" as in Cocteau's play. She keeps him on the phone while she changes into a travel outfit with glittering pants and a leather power jacket. She makes sure he can see her house from afar; makes sure he pays attention. "I have to get used to hanging up on you," are her last words – and then she sets their love nest on fire.

A spectacular catharsis --and as the fire brigade rushes onto the scene she makes for the exit – with the dog. "I am your master now," she tells the
dog. "You'll get used to it, okay?" Why hanker after a lover when you can strut away with his dog?


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Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2024 Renate Stendhal
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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