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The Human Voice in Pedro Almodóvar's One-Woman Act

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

This is one piece in a collection of 10 film reviews submitted by this year’s New Wave Jury members at Cornwall Film Festival 2021. The collection tackles recent films that stood out as radical works of filmmaking. You can read the other reviews here.

The Human Voice (2020), Pedro Almodóvar's first film in English, is a short melodrama loosely adapted from Jean Cocteau’s 1930s play of the same name, starring Tilda Swinton as the leading lady in this enigmatic one-woman act. Typical of Almodóvar, The Human Voice is yet another cautionary tale centred on the complexities of a young woman’s unstable, melancholic mind as she manoeuvres through the pain and despair of a deceitful love interest, reminiscent of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

Swinton showcases a phenomenal performance, one that is as raw as it is enchanting. Centre stage for the film’s entirety, bar her feline companion, Swinton’s presence and delivery are powerful, demanding our attention and immersion to every last word of this bittersweet, at times humorous, telephone exchange with her ex-lover. Confessing in her monologue that she must invent new habits, replacing all those acquired with him, speaks to the painful and relatable human experience of heartbreak. There is something comforting and therapeutic about the way Almodóvar allows us to voyeuristically observe this woman’s intimate thoughts and confessions. He allows us to not feel as alone in our own failed relationships and instead we unanimously share this sense of catharsis of letting go and moving on with the protagonist when the end credits roll.

Centered around this single phone call and, by extension, this final traumatic goodbye, the film is a testament to our digital age in which ghosting and breakups via text are becoming commonplace. It is an ode to the importance of the very basic need for human connection and intimacy as Swinton’s character spends days stagnant in the act of grief, yearning for her ex-lover to return and collect his things.

Paramount to the film’s success and authenticity is the breaking of the fourth wall as we see glimpses of the stage doors while Swinton walks outside of the frame, revealing that the apartment is just a set built in a studio. We are sorely reminded then that everything we do is just an act, especially when emotionally charged: an act of passion, of love, of violence or of revenge. It is not until Swinton literally snaps herself out of this act of affliction by setting alight her apartment (the stage) that she is free to act on herself and let go of this desire for closure.

Despite its brief thirty-minute run, The Human Voice is a beautiful and beguiling meditation on what it means to love, be loved, to lose and be lost. A departure from his conventional format and native tongue, The Human Voice is still brilliantly Almodóvaresque, dripping in the same aesthetic qualities that make his films so visually striking and unforgettable. For die-hard fans, this masterpiece is not to be missed but dared to be experienced.

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