By Dr. Luis Dias
Those are the words used by famed Spanish filmmaker, director, screenwriter, producer, and former actor Pedro Almodóvar to qualify his film, The Human Voice (2020), an adaptation of the French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play Une Voix Humaine.
The challenge Almodóvar faced was turning a play lasting around 20 minutes or so into a feature-length film, and making it relevant to a contemporary audience. Cocteau’s play is set around just one woman on stage speaking on the telephone to a lover (invisible, inaudible) at the other end of the line who has decided to leave her to marry another woman. In his introduction to the script, Cocteau admitted that the play was written in response to criticism from his actresses that his works were too “writer/director-dominated”, leaving them little opportunity to give vent to their histrionic range more fully.
The play has already been adapted by Roberto Rossellini (L’Amore, 1948, the second segment of which, Una Voce Umana is based on Cocteau’s work), and even an opera (1958) by the great French pianist-composer François Poulenc that Cocteau loved very much. Other film adaptations include a television version starring Ingrid Bergman.
Almodóvar wrote a new script, “freely inspired” by Cocteau of course. And, he chose Scottish narrator and actress Tilda Swinton for the singular role. He felt an “exceptional chemistry” with Swinton, translating from Spanish that they were “condemned to be friends.” To Swinton, despite their different origins and backgrounds, they share a common language and “culture of cinema.” So when Almodóvar wished to draw out a certain emotion from her at a particular point, he would use cinematic references and metaphors, and she would get it at once.
In retrospect, even though it was conceptualized before the Coronavirus pandemic struck, Almodóvar feels The Human Voice (which is also his English-language debut; all his other formidable work is in Spanish) has even more relevance as it depicts the seclusion, isolation, and loneliness of someone living alone, shut off from the rest of the world. “She’s almost imprisoned, isn’t she?” he said through a translator via Zoom interview to Eugene Hernandez, Director of the New York Film Festival. “It turned out, just by coincidence, to be a metaphor for the lockdown in the pandemic. Reality often slips in through the cracks of what you’re doing.”
Almodóvar calls this film “a mix between the essence of theatre with the essence of cinema”, far from realism or naturalism. The film title is apt, as the only real element in it which guides the viewer, the continuity element of the film is “solely and exclusively” Swinton’s voice. The setting is “ghostly”, as Swinton’s character is “almost a ghost herself.”
To Swinton, the tension in the original Cocteau play, between the protagonist wanting to tell her once-lover everything about her feelings to show him her pain on the one hand, and wanting to create a complete fabrication, on the other, and doing that on the telephone, which allows one to hear but not see the other was intriguing to her; the fine line between “inarticulacy and articulacy.” Almodóvar’s text is also about that same “dance”, that same “performance”; after all, the character is an actress. It (being jilted) is a predicament a lot of us 21 and above have lived through, says Swinton. “Everyone who has been abandoned is already in a soap opera.” The “twist and turn of sincerity and deception” makes it a rich text in Swinton’s view.
Almodóvar compares the sentimental epic nature of the abandoned woman’s feelings, the heightened emotions that her character has to the musical style popular in his culture, the ‘bolero’; “the exaggerated way of living your emotions, the ups and downs, from one extreme to the other, from feeling blissfully happy to feeling dreadful.” It calls for an actress with a whole variety of registers, and he found this in Swinton.
Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias has collaborated with Almodóvar in all his films after their first partnership in La flor de mi secreto (The Flower of My Secret, 1995), the last nine of Almodóvar’s 22 feature-length films. That’s saying a lot, as before that Almodóvar has worked with the legendary Ennio Morricone (Átame!, 1989) and Ryûichi Sakamoto (High Heels, 1991).
Film fans will also have heard the music of Iglesias in other, non-Almodóvarian films, classics such as The Constant Gardener (2005), The Kite Runner (2007), and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). The Human Voice has a 100% approval rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, with a weighted average of 9/10. When asked some years ago for the secret of the success of his films, Almodóvar had replied, “It’s important not to forget that films are made to entertain. That’s the key.”
With such a stellar combination of collaborators, The Human Voice promises to do exactly that.