On Wednesday, Venice gave a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement to Tilda Swinton, and the very next morning, she reappeared on the big screen dressed head to toe in Almodóvarian red as members of the press were treated to a preview of The Human Voice. Pedro Almodóvar first fleetingly referenced Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play in Law of Desire (1987) and then again far more explicitly in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). This new half-hour free adaptation is the Spanish filmmaker’s first work in English, but the first round of strong reviews suggests that his signature penchant for stark composition and color remains solidly intact. “From the first shot, we’re plunged into his hyperreal, hyper-designed world, and his red tones pop out like a 3D effect,” writes David Katz at the Film Stage. “The experience is so ravishing you almost need sunglasses.”
The Human Voice is practically a one-hander, with Swinton playing an actress wandering her luxurious apartment and speaking through her AirPods to her lover of several years on the night before he leaves her to marry another woman. In Swinton, Almodóvar has found “an English-language actor ideally attuned to his dual flair for everyday observation and heightened, blooming melodrama,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “She’s equal parts Jeanne Dielman and swooning Sirkian heroine, tensely mesmerizing even when you know exactly what she’s going to do. Anyone familiar with Anna Magnani’s reading of The Human Voice for director Roberto Rossellini in 1948’s L’amore, or Ingrid Bergman’s interpretation for TV in 1966, will spot traces of their DNA—raging and brittly vulnerable, respectively—in Swinton’s performance. Yet she’s made the woman less of a victim, more in command of her own considerable pain.”
Writing for the Playlist, Jessica Kiang gives appreciative shoutouts to costume designer Sonia Grande, production designer Antxon Gómez, and composer Alberto Iglesias, “apparently weepy-drunk on specialty gin and Brahms.” Iglesias’s score “would surely be enough sink another filmmaker into self-seriousness,” writes Kiang. “But this is Almodóvar, and so the magnificence is worn lightly, with irony and mischief and a cheeky little moral about how to be a modern woman trapped in the very unmodern role of spurned lover: be hysterical if you want, be philosophical if you can, but never underestimate the liberating power of a little light revenge.”
Further praise comes from Nicholas Barber at IndieWire and Robbie Collin in the Telegraph. At the press conference in Venice, Almodóvar and Swinton spoke a bit about making the film in Madrid two months ago while observing all the necessary lockdown protocols. “Next month, I’m starting my next film because, despite uncertainty, I have to go on, I need to keep making films,” says Almodóvar. Madres paralelas will tell the story of two mothers who give birth on the same day, and he’s already written two more short films. One will be a “colorful” western, and the other, A Strange Form of Life will take place in a future when all cinemas have disappeared. “So you have to tell people to go to the cinemas and theaters,” he says, “because some things will only be discovered in the dark with people that we don’t know.”
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