Sunday, May 9, 2021


Every frame of The Human Voice can serve to remind the viewer that Pedro Almodóvar is a master filmmaker. That’s not to say that it’s a show-off style piece, but that it so perfectly, precisely and seemingly effortlessly whips up one of his trademark exercises in character and mood, with haunting elisions and casual complexity, a psychological realism nestled in a matter-of-fact theatricality. It has color — the most vivid reds and blues and greens this side of Technicolor, another Almodóvar constant — and melodrama, but it’s also contained and complicated by its necessarily constrained pandemic creativity. In other words, its an excuse to work with mostly one performer on almost entirely one set. Here, in a quick but sumptuous 30-minute film, loosely based on a Jean Cocteau play, Almodóvar finds a woman (Tilda Swinton) just past the verge of a breakup. Her lover has vanished, seemingly for good. He calls on the phone. She talks to him — a long, winding conversation of which we can only hear her part. It’s effectively a monologue. Almodóvar gives her all the space she needs to cycle through stages of romantic grief, and sets her against a literal sound stage. She swans through her sweaty emotional states in a handsomely adorned apartment and a fabulous wardrobe, but the camera pushes and pulls at the edges of reality as we see from certain angles that it’s a set, the windows opening up to an empty warehouse space, the ceiling missing, the better for a crane shot. The artifice of the moment only serves, however, to double down on the dizzying intimacy of the film. We’re suspended in this space with this character, as Almodóvar views her with the compassionate close-up detail for which he’s come to be known.

His camera’s interest in her, and the space of fashion and design, color and decoration, is both well-curated and filmed with a stunning clarity. I’m reminded that to see through his camera is to approach the feeling of seeing the world in all its beautiful detail that a great poem or dense Shakespearean prose or a perfect photograph can give you. Suddenly you feel more alive to the world, and everyone in it playing out their own deeply personal dramas. So it is that we’ve been invited into a space where Almodóvar, even though he’s working with less — run time, cast, plot, setting — gives us everything he has. It’s a fashion show, a coffee table spread, a brilliant actress showcase, a reason to sink into visually satisfying frames set to typically transporting Alberto Iglesias strings. And it’s of a piece with this period of Almodóvar’s filmmaking through and through. After his early films, riots of swirling plots and character, and an expansive maturing, in which those interests grew more haunted and interior even as they spiraled outward, he’s settled into a fabulously melancholy groove of late. His Alice Munro adaptation Julieta has lingered in my mind with a quiet power, and his Pain and Glory is an achingly restrained work of an aging artist tenuously confronting his past. This short is one more reason to appreciate this stage of his career — his ability to draw out evocative emotion with deceptively simple flourishes and unmistakably personal style. What a pleasure it is to see through his eyes.

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