The first association for Tilda Swinton is of some otherworldly individual whose origins cannot be traced. She seems to be from another galaxy. For the first time, she acquires such a human voice in the short movie by Pedro Almodovar. His The Human Voice (2020) is a small cinematographic gem. A masterpiece, to the smallest details packed in 30 minutes. Each shot is a work of art, Almodоvar’s well-known aesthetic enhanced by the presence of Tilda Swinton. This was the first collaboration between the two Oscar winners: the versatile leader of New Spanish Cinema and the Scottish actress with unique aesthetics, wide-range roles choices and striking appearance on-screen and beyond.
If we consider that Almodovar used the idea of the abandoned woman standing on the edge of the abyss more than once, we can understand his obsession with Jean Cocteau’s play A Human Voice; the action takes place in Paris in the form of a phone conversation between a desperate woman and her now ex-lover, who is to marry another woman the next day. With his latest movie, freely based on this play, Almodovar seems to complete his obsession with it, also present in his film Law of Desire (1987), and as an initial moment in his first big international success Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown from 1988. It is a subject that still keeps intriguing after 2500 years, taking us way back to the Euripides‘ Medea.
Tilda Swinton is the abandoned woman in Amodovar’s version: “There was time, four straight years, until three days ago, when I waited for you while I watched DVD or read. And you always came back. The night was ours, and some entire mornings. There were also afternoons which, as if by magic, turned into nights. You always came back. Until three days ago.”
Those four years are juxtaposed with the three days. They were priceless moments of happiness, now past, a time determined and associatively tied to the past love as opposed to these three never-ending days fulfilled with the vain expectation of something that will never be. Two different time sequences, soaked in completely different tears, slowly meet and continue linearly in a future seen through the open door at the very end.
Through a telephone conversation with the now ex-lover, where we witness only her side of the story, the picture of those past four years is slowly assembled.
“No, I wasn’t funny with you. I was… special. Daring. Submissive. Passionate. And fortunate. I came into your life at a time when you wanted to try new things, new feelings. As if desiring someone wasn’t the oldest feeling in the world. And I was a different woman. So different that at times, I think you forgot that I was also a woman. Yes, and I accepted the situation. I’m not saying that I enjoyed sharing you, but given the circumstances, I accepted the humiliation. Even though I suffered like an animal. But I enjoyed it like an animal. I was so drunk, so intoxicated. I forgot about reality and time. But reality always prevails”.
All the props: the kitchen drawers that do not open, the unreal fake objects placed as an ornament, complement her home, artificial as everything else (the camera tilts up and shows us the studio). These solutions are not just an experiment, but the environment reflects that four-year relationship, which is as false as everything around it. The lover doesn’t leave just his mistress, but his dog as well, which only underlines further the contours and the content of his character.
Tilda Swinton walks on the edge the whole time, injecting a dose of uncertainty and a certain action dynamic. The phone call depicts all the stages of despair of one abandoned woman. At first, apparent tranquility, rationality and reconciliation with the situation, but afterwards, that repressed pain prevails over her, making cracks, breaking the dam with unstoppable force, and displaying her wretched condition. Swinton shifts from despair to anger, from rudeness to tenderness, from irrationality to rationality. And that change is so natural. Her voice moves from nostalgic, tender and warm to cry, rage, icy, becoming one with the paleness of her skin.
Swinton’s expressiveness is so appropriate that her character maybe fails to communicate with the person on the other side of the line, but she successfully builds a connection with the viewers, who commiserate with her, completing the story through her feelings, hunting for tiny little signs that this woman hasn’t lost control completely. She just allows herself to go through her state of emotions entirely in order to pick up her shattered pieces, scattered somewhere among those four years, and come out from the false reality free, finally breathing the air of truth.
The Human Voice shows us that fragility and uncompromising one’s dignity are not two opposite characteristics as they can take an equal place in a woman. And that is her strength.
After seeing this movie, you will have a rampant need for a new joint project of Tilda Swinton and Pedro Almodovar. You will be left with the feeling that these two have obviously come to some knowledge in art and life before us, and we are grateful to them for being virtuous enough to share it with us.