Future historians seeking a Covid-era time capsule should set aside half an hour for Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice. It isn’t just that the film — shot during the pandemic — is a model of social distancing, its star Tilda Swinton a virtual solo act. Neither is it the role it now takes in Britain at least, as glittering bait for reopened cinemas. The relevance is more particular. This is film-making in the style of a Zoom call with the colleague whose on-screen interiors are a deluxe act of war. Every room is a masterclass of colour choices and just-so objets. The books, of course, are perfect — Tender Is the Night and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, large-format monographs on Ingrid Bergman. If Almodóvar has made an advertisement for moviegoing, he has also created a fine one for redecoration, or ideally living in a show home.
The charm is how knowing it all is, tongue subtly in cheek throughout. The very material has been pulled from a shelf, the film a loose update of Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play in which a heartbroken woman shares a last phone call with her ex-lover. Near the start of his career, Almodóvar used it as inspiration for his breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Now it becomes a Bluetooth monologue, Swinton grabbing AirPods. For all but a scene, the cast is simply her and the couple’s dog, also distraught. The hound — Dash, an affable scrap — is a gifted performer too, as befits this mischievous film. The exquisite apartment turns out to sit inside a movie soundstage, in the middle of plyboard corridors.
Where better for Swinton to be? Almodóvar puts his spin on Cocteau by making her character an actress. Every splendid line delivery — and they are, from casual deceptions to impassioned pleas — is the stuff of performance, quote marks left in. A grande dame deals with tragedy, we realise, by making it a turn, the same way they armour themselves with couture and soft furnishings.
The bookshelves are at the modest end of a smorgasbord of flawless taste. The credits give thanks to brands including, but not limited to, Hermès, Balenciaga, Fornasetti homeware, Nanimarquina textiles, Tumi, Loewe, Chanel, Tom Ford and Cartier. You may feel you should take out a second mortgage just to watch them. But if a lot of luxury is packed into 30 minutes, so too is all kinds of subtext. The sly point being made is that it’s possible — maybe even unavoidable — for everything to be two things at once. High-end consumer goods can’t make us happy but we still love to gaze at them. A person can be sincerely wounded and grandly milking the moment. And you can ponder such quirks of the psyche while also realising you want to buy a new coffee machine.
Or an axe. An especially stylish one of those — courtesy of toolmaker Bellota — is sold in a hardware shop that is pure Almodóvar, pretty as a chocolatier. Swinton arrives with Dash and leaves with the murder weapon. Actress, dog and hatchet make some trio, but Swinton is the centrepiece — the human voice of this witty, teasing movie and the human pulse as well.
In UK cinemas from May 19, thehumanvoicefilm.co.uk