BFI London Film Festival Review – The Human Voice (2020)

A glamourous one-woman show with a dark streak, The Human Voice is a masterfully crafted piece of short filmmaking. Starring—and only starring—Tilda Swinton, the one-room drama takes viewers through a roller coaster of emotions in only thirty minutes. Directed by Pedro Almodóvar and based on the play by Jean Cocteau, The Human Voice is inventively filmed with style and precision. Swinton paints the portrait of a lonely woman, clinging onto her expensive furniture and “little Chanel case” to fill the void of her lover (and career) leaving.

Framed almost as if playing a game of Sims, the camera lingers over Swinton’s apartment set, resembling a theatre construction. Everything about The Human Voice is sleek and clean-cut, from the elegant wardrobe to the modern interiors. But in the middle of this luxury stands Swinton: a mess of a woman, desperately trying to keep a polished front. The premise seems simple: a woman on the phone to her lover, walking around her apartment idly. Yet Swinton claims the screen, holding our attention despite never hearing the voice on the other side of the phone.

Through immaculate voice control and impressive expression, Swinton swings us from one emotion to the next. Her overly polite responses— “Oh yes, it’s you. Thank you for calling back.”—shift at any moment; the next minute she’s screaming down the phone—clearly a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Aside from the brilliant acting, The Human Voice is intricately woven and cleverly subtle. A recurring motif of fire— “it burns everything”, “I’m what’s burning, my love”—and metaphorical language exposes the films roots in theatre, foreshadowing the big finale.

Cocteau used a telephone prop in the original play as a means of exploring the ways in which humans need and communicate. This is something Almodóvar keeps intact—never loosing sight of the story’s core and offering an artistic snapshot into the modern reality of heartbreak.

(The Human Voice is available to watch at selected cinemas now).