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tilda swinton in a luxurious apartment
Tilda Swinton in The Human Voice.
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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Pedro Almodóvar’s English-language debut is a bold summation of his career

Tilda Swinton stars in The Human Voice, a 30-minute Jean Cocteau adaptation

Polygon is reporting from the remote edition of the annual New York Film Festival, bringing you first looks at the upcoming movies headed to theaters, streaming services, and awards season. This review came from a New York Film Festival screening.

Anyone familiar with the work of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar should easily recognize The Human Voice as his latest film. The 30-minute film is packed full of his directorial trademarks: bold colors, a focus on passion, and a tone that veers between hilarious and heartbreaking, in this case carried off by Tilda Swinton. For those unfamiliar with Almodóvar, it’s a perfect crash-course introduction.

The Human Voice — Almodóvar’s English-language debut, based on Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name — begins with Swinton’s nameless character purchasing an axe at a hardware store, but it’s otherwise a monologue. While at home, Swinton receives a call. She picks it up through her AirPods and paces around her apartment as she converses with an inaudible voice on the other end of the line. The caller, it turns out, is her ex-lover, who has yet to come collect his things from their apartment, even though they split up several days ago.

tilda swinton stands in front of a large painting
Tilda Swinton in The Human Voice.
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

As the conversation continues, Swinton goes through every emotion imaginable, but with a sense of desperation underlying them all. She’s clearly struggling to let go and accept the end of their relationship, or to properly parse how she feels toward her ex, now that he refuses to say goodbye to her in person. Swinton calculates her character’s ups and downs so perfectly that it doesn’t matter that she’s delivering her lines to thin air. The other end of the conversation is easy to imagine, based on how she reacts to it, whether it’s with a forced laugh or a rush of annoyance.

Her emotions are amplified by the film’s design. Swinton’s character is seen rummaging through Blu-rays of movies including Phantom Thread and Kill Bill, both of which intertwine love and death. The colorful lavishness of the apartment she prowls through — bright greens and reds, swaths of mustard-yellow — make everything feel more melodramatic. Even when the camera moves far enough to reveal that the apartment is a set built in the middle of a giant studio, Swinton’s performance is so sharp, and every aspect of what Almodóvar puts on screen is so carefully thought-out and deliberate, that the artifice doesn’t detract from the emotions at play.

As per its source material, The Human Voice is a very theatrical work, but this isn’t the first time Almodóvar has drawn from this Cocteau play. One of the characters in his 1987 film Law of Desire was written as starring in the play, and his 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, while not an adaptation, took Cocteau’s text as a starting point. The Human Voice is the most straightforward adaptation, and in its unmistakable Almodóvar-esque execution, it feels like a distillation of the director’s four decades of work thus far.

tilda swinton looking disheveled
Tilda Swinton in The Human Voice.
Image: Sony Pictures Classics

The short is also a feat of pandemic filmmaking — Almodóvar and his team shot the film over two weeks in July. Perhaps that accounts for some of the sense of filmic trickery, specifically with regards to the set, but the choice to reveal the apartment as fake only plays into how striking The Human Voice is. Even separated from the context of current affairs, the separation Swinton’s character feels from the rest of the world is cutting, given how trapped she feels in her apartment.

An extended monologue might not sound like a sustainable concept for a film, but The Human Voice is no longer or shorter than it needs to be. Just as it seems like the film’s gimmick might be overstaying its welcome, Almodóvar introduces a last dramatic flourish before bringing the proceedings to a close. It’s a delight no matter how you slice it; for fans, it’s a reminder of what makes Almodóvar such a great director, and for neophytes, it’s an unforgettable introduction.

The Human Voice does not yet have a release date.