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FILM REVIEW: The Human Voice – The BFI London Film Festival 2020

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Or A Woman On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. Perdro Almodóvar’s reimagining of Jean Cocteau’s play is, remarkably, his first English film. And what better woman to follow the likes of Penélope Cruz, Rossy de Palma and Cecilia Roth, than our own Tilda Swinton? Of course, Swinton is good but this 30-minute short is a case of style over substance.

Swinton plays a rejected lover and she waits for him to return in her fancy technicoloured apartment, itself laid out as a film set in a studio. The oranges and greens are a sumptuous feast for the eyes and sometimes it’s quite difficult to follow Swinton’s monologue when giant Chanel bottles sit in her bathroom, or when her hands caress a Nespresso machine, or when a giant volume of Ingrid Bergman photographs takes centre place on the bookshelf behind her. Nothing, however, upstages the Artemisia Gentileschi that hangs in one of the rooms. It’s mentioned at the end of the film’s credit’s suggesting that it might be the real deal rather than a copy. Surely not?

And if the objets d’art don’t meet approval, there are Swinton’s clothes at the start of the film, a long red ball gown reminiscent of the one she wore in Derek Jarman’s The Last of England. That film was a protest against Margaret Thatcher’s ruthless brand of capitalism; Almodóvar’s film seems a celebration of excess.

Swinton moves from room to room, talking to her ex lover on the phone – though, of course, she speaks to him through her Apple air-pods – telling him lies and then telling him the truth. She says she’s been out with friends, lunch, theatre, but really she’s been nowhere except the single visit to the hardware shop to buy an axe. She’s grieving and she appears to have murderous intentions. When she hacks away at his suit that lies on the bed, is she rehearsing her revenge?

Alberto Iglesias’s music also offers glamour to the surroundings with the opening credits – themselves beautiful and imaginative – providing an old-fashioned James Bond feel to the early moments of The Human Voice. But despite the film’s title, Almodóvar appears more interested in inanimate objects, in the same way that W.B. Yeats once praised a golden bird that ‘Grecian goldsmiths make/of hammered gold and gold enamelling/To keep a drowsy Emperor awake.’

Opulent and luxurious, there is still a vulgarity to Swinton’s collection, and it’s difficult to warm to her and her paranoia and her manipulations. Almodóvar’s early women were outrageously alive and defiantly tragic – as if tragic was a skill – but Swinton is just cold and, like her objects, lifeless. This is not to say that she doesn’t put in a good performance, but maybe the English accent as well as the English temperament means that Almodóvar has a different kind of excess in mind. Swinton’s character acts in a perfect English manner, terribly polite, cutting off her nose to save her face.

Perhaps someone should let Almodóvar remake Brief Encounter or, even better, Brideshead Revisited with all its repressed longing amid grand houses and English Catholicism. Maybe that day will come, but his first dip into the English language is a suitably chilly affair.

 The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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