Pedro Almodóvar has always understood the melancholy and madness of discarded women but has never done crazy as elegantly as with Tilda Swinton in his new short “The Human Voice,” styled in blood-red Balenciaga. Abandoned by her lover, she wanders lost in her hypermodern upholstered home (and the empty backlot propping it up) before finding absolution with the click of a gold lighter and a pair of silver lame trousers.
In his first English short film — already shortlisted for an Oscar this year — Almodóvar has done away with the submissive women of his female characters in 1980’s “Pepi, Luci, Bom” and 1989’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” Instead, he’s given us a modern woman trapped in the unmodern role of a spurned lover — but with permission to lose her mind in couture, set fire to the lie and come out OK on the other side.
“I always pay my price,” Swinton says in the film. And she does, but she also got her own back.
Based on the 1930 Jean Cocteau play of the same name, it’s the story of an aging actress talking on the phone to her long-term lover a day before he marries another woman. In Almodóvar’s film, and to adjust to today, it’s an iPhone and AirPods, not phones with cords to wrap around your neck.
With “The Human Voice,” Almodovar modernized the suffering of a woman — and gave her amazing clothes and an ax.
He first paid homage to Cocteau’s play in 1987’s “Law of Desire,” in which a character played by Carmen Maura was supposed to star in an adaptation of it. The play was also his inspiration for 1988’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” also with Maura and that phone that was the source of her desperation, for which he received his first Oscar nomination.
With “The Human Voice,” he has modernized the suffering of a woman — and gave her amazing clothes and an ax.
Almodóvar, 71, has found redemption in autonomy, in deconstructing the parts of one’s life that no longer work, razing them to the ground, in order to continue. He now allows us to go insane, set fire to the pain and find sweet revenge in the end.
Swinton plays a woman — an abandoned aging doll in a weird dollhouse — pacing, constantly changing clothes, slowly going crazy waiting for her lover to call. When he finally does, she lies to him that she is fine and then tells him she fantasizes about stabbing him with a kitchen knife.
As women age, it is survival that we look for; loneliness is just a construct from which we can be freed.
She performs a fine dance between rage and despair — one to which any woman (or anyone) who has been unceremoniously dumped can relate. Swinton’s character is no Bridget Jones.
“I discovered that I wanted to make it something more contemporary because it’s impossible for women right now to identify with the idea of a submissive woman, someone submissive to her partner,” Almodóvar said in an interview with Vulture. “Not a woman who depends on her man, but who has a kind of moral autonomy.”
We see Swinton’s character going through the different stages of grief dressed in a crimson Balenciaga dress with a gigantic hoop skirt, morose in a strange theatrical space, and then in a cerulean blue number, sunglasses and a Chanel purse buying an ax in a hardware store, swinging it framed by Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Sleeping Venus” in the background.
After downing a fistful of multicolored pills — another reference to “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” — Swinton’s character lies down on her bed in a red-ribbed number (again Balenciaga) and waits for oblivion. Who wouldn’t want to go in haute couture?
It will all be fine; revenge is a dish best served hot.
In the world of Swinton’s glass-cutting monologue, and Almodóvar’s camp humor, it’s OK to skirt the edge of the end if you step back from the abyss by sticking your head under the shower — again a tip of the hat to Maura’s characters — and then make coffee in a red Braun machine.
The man who has so hurt her is never seen or heard but simply identified by a pile of suitcases next to the front door and a dark suit, laid out in the bed as if at a funeral parlor waiting for its corpse. (That is the object to which Swinton’s character eventually takes the aforementioned ax.)
Swinton’s character struggles with the fact that she is aging and has been left alone in this garish house full of objects — so many red objects (a red swollen glass heart dominates one scene, for instance). A keen eye will spot books with titles like “Tender Is the Night” and “Other Men’s Daughters” on the living room table.
“Women of my age are in fashion again,” she says. “Apparently, people like my pallor, my mixture of madness and melancholy.”
The film is half an hour of Almodóvar going back and paying homage to his past, but it is also a maturing Almodóvar, who has finally understood that as women age, it is survival that we look for, that loneliness is just a construct from which we can be freed and that after the loneliness and pain comes a dog and that freedom.
And as her past burns by her own hand, she walks into a literal sunset with the dog — her ex-lover’s. They have both been left behind and will mourn him together, she tells the animal. But it will all be fine; revenge is a dish best served hot.
It is also an added bonus that we know the suitcases the lover came for burned — along with everything else — when Swinton’s character clicked the lighter and set fire to it all. He didn’t deserve them anyway.
Susanne Ramírez de Arellano
Susanne Ramírez de Arellano is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York City. She is the former news director of Channel 11-Univision in Puerto Rico and has worked for ABC News, APTN in London and CNN International. She writes a blog for El Nuevo Dia digital. Her Twitter is @durgaone.