Tilda Speaks

La voz humana (The Human Voice, Pedro Almodóvar, 2020)

Part way through this English-language short, I got a flash of memory of Law of Desire (1987) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), and realised that Tilda Swinton was channeling Carmen Maura, once Almodóvar’s muse and favourite actor. What I’d forgotten was that Cocteau’s 1930 monodrama, on which this film is loosely based, was performed in Law of Desire and fed into Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Like Tom Stoppard, Almodóvar loves this kind of mise en abîme and the whole film seems to be filmed on a film set.

Swinton, aside from a visit to a hardware store, is waiting for her ex-lover to return and pick up his clothes (a set-up that’s sort of in Women). She phones him — to play it cool, to plead with him or to berate him. With the apartment in a studio, it’s not clear if this is going to be real or a performance, if she is speaking to him or his answerphone.

Swinton glides effortlessly through this, in a stunning scarlet gown and many other costumes, the film being designed within an inch of its life, and if she doesn’t walk away with every second of screen time, it’s because the dog costar is fantastic (if less well dressed). There was every danger that the film would end in anticlimax (do we want Godot to arrive? Or not?), but Almodóvar tweaks the ending so that it is empowering and still open.

In a Q&A after the film, it is clear that Swinton and Almodóvar have a mutual admiration club — she wants to work with him again, he wants to write something for her — possibly a script in progress whose protagonist is called Matilda. I’m there. And it is clear that thise two Maura as muse films were in mind during production, as I sensed. 

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