Tilda Swinton buys an ax toward the start of The Human Voice, a new short film from Pedro Almodóvar that packs the punch of a dozen features. That trip to the hardware store represents the only instance in which her character has left her apartment for three days, though she lies about this on the phone with the lover who recently left her, telling him that she’s been out to the theater and eating voraciously in restaurants with friends. The truth is that she’s been waiting alone for him to come collect the things she’s packed in suitcases by the door, giving her a chance to see him one last time. Her unnamed character is an actor, and the purgatory in which she’s been stranded has left her feeling even more dramatic than usual — hence the ax, which she turns out to have gotten for the sake of a gesture. One of her lover’s suits has been laid out on the bed they used to share, like the shed skin of an animal that’s grown and moved on, and she takes her newly purchased tool to it in a fit of rage. It’s a grand action that no one else is around to witness beside their dog, who’s been similarly abandoned — and, of course, those of us watching, who make up her real audience.
The Human Voice is all about the muddied lines between the fabricated and the genuine, and about how much a performance can be divorced from the sincere feelings that might be undergirding it. The film, which runs for 30 minutes and marks Almodóvar’s English-language debut, is the third from the Spanish director to take inspiration from Jean Cocteau’s 1930 monodrama The Human Voice, and the most direct, though as the credits note, it’s still “freely based” on the play. Almodóvar highlights the artificiality of the production from the start, with Swinton in a Balenciaga ball gown wandering morosely around a soundstage that’s soon revealed to contain the apartment in which her unnamed character lives. It’s a gorgeously appointed place, all rich colors and inviting textures and enviable furnishings, the kind of creation that looks like it’s right out of an Almodóvar film, with periodic shots from above or of the plywood exterior to remind us that that’s precisely what it is.
This theatricality, with the nature of the set made clear and the audience acknowledged by a fourth wall–breaking glance in the opening sequences, matches up with the behavior of Swinton’s character, and Swinton, as angular and wry and fearless as ever, leans into it. She engages in a sort of suicide attempt halfway through, dressing up in a sumptuous red knit set and a full face of makeup before downing a careful handful of pills and curling up next to the suit she’d previously attacked. When she’s awakened by a call from the man who’s leaving her, and whose voice we never hear, she informs him that she knew the drug combination wouldn’t kill her, and that it was another of those gestures for herself and for the viewer. He, after all, doesn’t appear to intend to show up himself. “I was hoping someone would find me,” she tells him. “I wanted you to find me pretty — dead but pretty. It was just an idea. I’ve done nothing these days but wait.”
The Human Voice often gets described as a gift and a rebuke to actors, a play consisting entirely of a woman alone on stage, talking on the phone to the man who’s left her to marry someone else, and alternately cajoling, castigating, reassuring, manipulating, and losing control over the course of their conversation. It’s ripe material, though it’s not exactly flattering. But Almodóvar has always been fonder of melodramatic impulses, and his interpretation has more empathy to offer his protagonist, even as she experiences her own solitary meltdown. In Almodóvar’s vision, the ax, the drugs, and the final incendiary act are all of a kind, all outlandish gestures with a core of emotional catharsis to them. He is willing to allow the character’s behavior to be seen as a journey toward closure, rather than just some desperate attempts to hold on to a relationship that’s already gone. There’s a stubborn dignity to the way that the character acts out, even as she falls apart. The film luxuriates in her suffering, not out of some sense of sadism, but out of a sense that there’s a magnificence to all big emotions, even the ones that accompany pain. Sometimes, you need to burn everything to the ground to start over — or to see Tilda Swinton do it in a pair of gold lamé pants, which is frankly just as good.