This woman (Tilda Swinton) is having to contemplate the rest of her life without her lover, and she is taking it even worse than the pet dog he has left behind, and is now miserably wondering when his master will return. To get something out of her system, the woman decides to buy an axe, for there is destruction on her mind, and when she returns home to the now-empty apartment she lays out some clothes, a few of hers and a suit of his, onto the bed. Then, in a fit of rage, she grabs the axe and throws the blade down on the suit, again and again, screaming her head off, much to the dog's bemusement, as her plans turn to even bigger acts of destruction...
The Human Voice was directed by Pedro Almodóvar as his first English language film, though merely dipping his toe in those waters as this lasted a mere half hour long (and featured a few lines in Spanish, to boot). Naturally, he opted for the arty director's accustomed, safe pair of hands, Tilda Swinton, to deliver his lines, adapted from the one-woman stage play by Jean Cocteau which had been filmed before, a favourite with actresses on stage or screen to show audiences what they were made of and could hold their attention for the duration, with the respect tackling a Cocteau play can bring. Not that Swinton really needed any more respect due, she had attained that level some time before.
As if to acknowledge the theatrical roots of the piece, the director highlighted the artificiality, having most of it play out on an obvious apartment set with the walls of the building plain to see behind the walls of the rooms that had been constructed for Swinton (and the pooch, threatening to steal the show throughout) to inhabit. Of course, the point was that the unnamed woman spends most of the story, such as it was, talking on the phone to her lover who coincidentally has called her up and interrupted a suicide attempt that latterly the woman does not come over as very serious about. She tries to persuade the boyfriend she is fine, then to win him back, but before long we are not very sure if he is even still on the line, or indeed if this is a whole fantasy dreamt up by her drug-addled brain.
Perhaps she is already dead? The possibilities present themselves again and again, but thankfully what could have been somewhat dry is given a lift by the popping colour scheme (Douglas Sirk is referenced in a DVD collection, along with some other pointed exhibits, books too) and the steely intensity of Swinton's performance (you would expect nothing less). So it ticked all the arthouse boxes for the twenty-twenties - director, star, source material, even the pandemic it was shot under - but was it entertaining? Really it was another tale of a woman struggling without a man around, and that was not exactly bright and cheery, no matter that ending where the woman throws off her bonds and comes to terms with a loss that seems like grief for almost the entire running time. There were no laughs to be garnered, yet it was not particularly depressing, it was more watching someone working out a major problem in their thoughts, and concluded hopefully. But overall, more a trifling exercise than a main course.
[Click here to watch on MUBI.]