Review: In The Human Voice, an English-Language Short Film, Spanish Filmaker Pedro Almodóvar Is as Bold and Captivating As Ever

The Academy Awards for short films are usually only of interest to die-hard Oscars fans, those of us paying attention to the filmmakers highlighted in this often-overlooked category in order to decipher who might be the up-and-coming talents to keep an eye on in the future. But every now and then, the category gets superseded by marquee names or films so of the zeitgeist that, for better or worse, the rest of the contenders don’t really stand a chance. The upcoming 93rd Academy Awards may just be one of those years, as Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s 30-minute meditation on a break-up gone bad, The Human Voice, is shortlisted for the live-action short film category (and, if you’re reading this after March 15, might’ve already been nominated).

The Human Voice

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Marking the first English-language production from Almodóvar (2019’s Pain and Glory, and many, many more), The Human Voice (loosely based on Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name) stars none other than Tilda Swinton as a woman newly deserted by her longterm boyfriend, whom we never see or even hear from. Instead, all of the film’s dialogue is Swinton’s, delivered in the manner of a one-sided phone call with her now ex that is at turns desperate, contentious and even depressing. (There’s one early scene in which we see Swinton, clearly in Spain, buying an axe at a hardware store, so I suppose there is some other dialogue, if only briefly.)

With the dog Dash by her side, a sweetheart of a collie who gazes longingly at the packed suitcases in the hall and doesn’t realize that his master isn’t coming home, the woman (she is never named) paces her urban apartment (which, in a turn of major meta-ness, is shown to be a set in a warehouse) realizing something is very off but unable to believe what she already knows. She’s sinking into a depression, one she’s not trying too terribly hard to stay out of as she throws a ceramic decoration across the room in frustration and worse. When the phone finally does ring, her conversation with the man on the other end swings to either end of the emotional spectrum. At times, she tries sweet-talking her beloved, offering patience and understanding; at others, she becomes indignant, impossible to be placated or spoken down to. Over the course of the conversation, it’s as if she finally breaks entirely, resulting in a satisfyingly incendiary final scene.

Brief as it is, Almodóvar manages to infuse the story of the woman and her dog, abandoned by the man they both love, with a palpable sense of significance; this is not just any break-up, this is a seismic shift in her being, a moment that will mark her life with a “before” and “after” as she learns to navigate a world in which even those we think we know best can become strangers. There are only a small handful of actors who could so competently take ownership of the thirty minutes of material Almodóvar hands them in The Human Voice, and Swinton is at the top of the list. She masterfully commands every moment of the film, taking us on the character’s journey through a broken heart. Her talent pared with the characteristically bold and vibrant production design—from the colorful apartment with statement art on the walls to Swinton’s enviable wardrobe—make for a film that’s next to impossible to take one’s eyes off.

The Human Voice is now playing at the Music Box Theatre, in conjunction with Almodóvar’s 1988 noir romantic comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, another film about a woman who finds herself suddenly alone. Though the two might not be the best date night material, there’s something undeniably compelling about all of Almodóvar’s work, aptly on display in this double feature.

Tickets to the Almodóvar double-bill at Music Box Theatre must be purchased in advance online; follow all CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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