‘The Human Voice’: Pedro Almodovar and Tilda Swinton Unleash a Rush of Melodrama Inside a Masterful Short

In times of scarceness, some artists use what’s available to continue creating what the moment inspires. For Pedro Almodóvar the Covid-19 pandemic meant lockdowns and the inability to make a feature film. But that did not stop the Spanish auteur from hearing the muse and teaming up with Tilda Swinton to make “The Human Voice,” using minimal crew and locales. Here Almodóvar returns to that style of filmmaking experiencing a growing prominence in our digital age — the short film. Like the best short stories, this is a master class in compact narrative. In 30 minutes Almodóvar delivers more passion and dramatic tension than most 3-hour opuses. “The Human Voice” is playing exclusively at select theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. Readers are encouraged to consider all safety concerns for themselves and others. 

The short is inspired by Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name, in which a woman dominates the stage by talking to a former lover on the phone. The Woman in this loose adaptation is Swinton, who we first see in a grand red dress before cutting to her inside a hardware store buying an axe. She then wanders inside what is obviously a soundstage, but voluptuously designed to give the appearance of a high-end house or apartment. She lays a suit out on a bed and attacks it with the axe. Then her phone buzzes to life and she answers. Immediately we sense it is a former lover, because The Woman engages in a conversation of near-pleading despair. His suitcases are still at her place, waiting for him, as is his dog. With the lover ready to move on, the Woman is conversing both with them and with herself in a sense, trying to pry her emotions loose. If need be, she’s willing to go to very extreme lengths.

The story Almodóvar tells has been adapted before, most notably by Roberto Rossellini in a 1948 version starring Anna Magnani. Ingrid Bergman also starred in a 1966 version by Ted Kotcheff. Almodóvar isn’t seeking to even render homage to those variations, he is making a piece respectful of the concept while full of his own, defining signatures. Almodóvar is a director of melodrama, in the tradition of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, first structuring this small film as a visual seduction. The colors of the Woman’s home are as vibrant and fiery as her feelings. There is also a feeling all throughout of Almodóvar feeling inspired to have fun and create. He gathers many of his usual collaborators, including cinematographer José Luis Alcaine and composer Alberto Iglesias. Alcaine bathes shots in the rich palettes he famously splashed around Almodóvar classics like “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” while Iglesias brings back the kind of evocative, melodramatic strings he has used in some of the master’s twisted fantasies like “The Skin I Live In.” In a way it’s a return to this team’s collaborative roots after 2019’s powerfully subdued “Pain and Glory,” which was a more personal, autobiographical movie by Almodóvar.

In “The Human Voice,” the theme is simple and rich. Few injuries in life can be as painful as a broken heart. Almodóvar’s camera movements may be subtle, but not the tensions inside Swinton, who looks ready to set the world on fire. Swinton, still one of the greats, makes the Woman empathetic and explosive, hinting at the person on the other end of the line that she’s contemplated suicide, while debating with herself about the need to let go. Memories and feelings tumble out. In many ways it’s a reminder of why an artist like Cocteau was so great. His own films, like “Orpheus,” were visual masterpieces, but his work as a poet and writer could be sublime in its pure sense of feeling. Likewise, Almodóvar is not shy about lacking subtlety at times. He’s enjoying himself so much that even the production design boldly announces his tastes, like an overhead shot of Douglas Sirk DVDs (and a copy of Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”) splayed on a coffee table. The ending is violent, funny and even tender, all at once. What begins as a growing meltdown ends with kindness towards a dog.

Many emerging filmmakers, especially film students, have their first experiences in crafting a movie through the art of the short film. It’s a great way to practice structuring a story and its beats, and learning how to speak visually without relying all the time on dialogue. “The Human Voice,” made by Almodóvar when the pandemic made it impossible to do a full feature, demonstrates how to pull it off well. There are many moments where Swinton need not say everything. With one glance or one angle, every feeling is expressed exquisitely. One of the world’s great directors returns briefly to prove that a good storyteller can grab you any tools at their disposal, even during lockdown.

The Human Voice” releases March 12 in select theaters.