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Review: In his tasty new short ‘The Human Voice,’ Pedro Almodóvar revisits without repeating

Tilda Swinton in the movie "The Human Voice."
(Sony Pictures Classics)

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Steeped in the artist’s quintessential modes and fascinations, Pedro Almodóvar‘s first English-language work, “The Human Voice,” is an electrifying half-hour short film starring chameleonic British star Tilda Swinton. For his latest, albeit condensed, escapade of magnetic women at the end of their rope, the Spanish master reconfigured Jean Cocteau’s one-actor play of the same title as the foundation for a meta-concoction.

Clad in showstopping couture (including a velvety dress and a turtleneck, both in the director’s requisite red), the statuesque Swinton plays an actress praised for her “madness and melancholy.” Stumbling through a romantic rupture, she commands the entire piece alone — save for her dog companion and a cameo by the director’s brother and longtime producer Agustín Almodóvar — on a call with an estranged lover saying goodbye.

Her monologue is enrapturing, a verbal labyrinth mapping the lies, arrangements and broken promises comprising the secretive relationship. Devoid of the extravagant disguises that her more fanciful roles so often demand, Swinton manifests, with magnificently nuanced modulation, an emotional tangle; at times, it is raw with a cathartic force, while enmeshed with meekly conciliatory moments of codependence. Wielding a hatchet with violent purpose or begging for a final rendezvous, Swinton’s every scorching word cuts deep.

In this modern reinterpretation of the 1930 classic, the phone no longer has a cord, thus the character’s cell phone AirPods allow for mobility in line with the needs of a cinematic rendition. The camera ballets around Almodóvar’s muse du jour or frames her within eyeshot of an imposing artwork, “Venus and Cupid” by groundbreaking Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Although he produced the short in the early days of the pandemic, the auteur worked with his A-team, including director of photography José Luis Alcaine, who’s shot nearly every entry in his catalog, and composer Alberto Iglesias.

A soundstage with an impeccable apartment at its center — a realm so unmistakably the director’s in its production design and color palette — entraps the performer’s dramatic explosion. It’s a set within a set housing an actress playing an actress. It feels like looking behind the curtain only to discover there are layers to it.

Almodóvar is not trying to hide the seams of the artifice in “The Human Voice” but rather show them as if to briefly step outside of the aesthetic margins he’s drawn for himself over the years — to look at his creation from outside, like an out-of-body exercise or a bird’s-eye view examination. Of course, that sense of a rustic or less manicured mise-en-scène is only a mirage. Total control of everything onscreen, perhaps more than ever, remains his.

That he engages with the space and material in such manner responds to the underlying theme of utilitarianism that percolates in the mind of Swinton’s character. Tools and hardware become symbols for the things that are pragmatic and logical, as opposed to the matters of the heart that don’t answer to reason. She wants to be a “practical woman,” in love and life, but can’t, and so destruction becomes escape.

Watching her rituals of loneliness and eventual penchant for a rebirth from the ashes, as well as key corners within the location, like a balcony adorned with flowers — that in this case leads only to the warehouse-like floor — there’s an immediate tongue–in-cheek call to the filmmaker’s signature handling of troubled liaisons.

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Almodóvar’s breakthrough 1988 feature “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” which fittingly will screen with the short in some markets (not Los Angeles), resonates strongly here in tone and outcome. That early movie also departed from the same Cocteau text, so inevitably there’s plenty of Carmen Maura’s Pepa Marcos in Swinton’s passionate thespian. Notes of “Law of Desire,” another movie of his where the original “The Human Voice” makes an appearance, also are present in the fluid treatment of fiction and reality.

Undoubtedly, Almodóvar is one of few visionaries who can succeed at enthralling through self-referential nods. With this 30-minute visual morsel he further evolves the nesting dolls of stories he’s built around the same French monodrama. For an artist so set in his stylistic and thematic ways, it’s always riveting to see how he maneuvers his tropes.

Watching a new Almodóvar confection is like tasting a sumptuously familiar dish not just reheated but revamped via the introduction of new ingredients that elevate what we already adore about it. He revisits without repeating. In the interim between 2019’s masterfully personal “Pain and Glory” and his upcoming new full-length effort, it’s glorious to receive a concentrated shot of Almodóvar’s genius worth every minute in acting gold.

‘The Human Voice’

Rated: R, for some drug content and nude images

Running time: 30 minutes

Playing: Starts March 12, Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry; and in New York City and Miami where theaters are open


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