<div class="paragraphs"><p>Tilda Swinton in a hardware store in a still from 'The Human Voice'</p></div>

Review: The Human Voice Is A Woman's Haunted Quest for Closure

'The Human Voice' is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau's play but doesn't let the character fall prey to her depression.

Movie Reviews
4 min read

Review: The Human Voice Is A Woman's Haunted Quest for Closure

Pedro Almodóvar's The Human Voice is full of ghosts. Metaphorical ones. Tilda Swinton is a woman carrying the ghosts of a relationship which has just ended. Haunting her are its remnants, embodied in the bags her ex-lover is yet to come pick up, the pet dog he has left behind, and the black suit dry-cleaned and laid out on the bed they shared.

At one point, she attacks the suit, this shadowy manifestation of her beau, in anger over being ghosted. Sick of sitting quietly by a phone that won't ring, she even considers suicide. The call does come eventually, and with it, some closure. But to truly move on, she must perform an exorcism by fire.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Tilda Swinton lies next to the suit her former lover left behind</p></div>

Tilda Swinton lies next to the suit her former lover left behind

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

There's also the ghost which haunts the film itself: that of Jean Cocteau's play which Almodovar freely adapts. It had haunted his earlier works too. In Law of Desire, Carmen Maura not only appears in a production of The Human Voice, but destroys the stage with an axe. The follow-up, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, was also a free adaptation of the Cocteau play, and finds Maura waiting for her lover to pick up his suitcase. Phones are broken, and beds are burnt in similar frustration.

The Human Voice thus belongs to the category that Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante termed as “Almodrama,” but in a more crystallised 30-minute form. The director's cinematic language remains unmistakably clear in the surfeit of colour, pop art, and movement. Swinton's nameless protagonist seems to be living on an empty movie set, sauntering from stage to backstage in a deliberate blurring of cinema and theatre, reality and fiction, art and artifice. These have been some of Almodovar's key thematic concerns throughout his career.


The one time the camera gives us a glimpse of a reality beyond the setting is when Swinton goes to purchase an axe and a can of gasoline at a store. To define the world she inhabits, the notion of space is conveyed in an overhead shot that places us above the action through a dollhouse view. The roofless rooms play into the idea of a transformation in progress, her rebirth still under construction.

Almodovar uses the scenic space as a study into the narrative tension between cinema and theatre as a medium. In the conflict between their conventions is the meeting of public and private spheres, interior and exterior lives. The theatrical staging imbues the film with an intimacy, and at the same time, the staged theatricality calls attention to the artifice of a drama aspiring for emotional authenticity. For Almodovar, there is truth to be found even in artifice and melodrama.

The drama arises from the one-way phone conversation with the lover, which is essentially a monologue of Swinton's character processing her grief over the relationship. She cycles through all its stages. There's some denial, axe-driven anger, bargaining to salvage the relationship in the phone call, and a failed suicide attempt (with pills and wine) before eventual acceptance.


Unlike the Cocteau play, the woman in Almodovar's adaptation doesn't yield easily to her depression, but empowers herself in a fiery act, breaking out of her physical and psychological confines and moving on.

Fire gives her the courage to hang up the phone. Fire cleanses the past, conveying her passion, fury, freedom and resurrection. After all, her cultural diet, revealed in an earlier scene, is full of women trying to move forward from broken relationships: Blu-rays of Kill Bill, Phantom Thread and Jackie are spread out on the table, offering snapshots into Almodovar's possible Pinterest board for the movie.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Tilda Swinton in 'The Human Voice'</p></div>

Tilda Swinton in 'The Human Voice'

(Photo Courtesy: The Quint)

The costumes and set design are characters in themselves. The film opens to Swinton ambling aimlessly across an empty soundstage, dressed in a red crinoline gown. As she sits on a lone chair, the camera zones in on her anguished face, her eyes make her as-yet uncertain sorrow tangible. The scene cuts to her draped in mournful black.

More monochrome outfits — red turtlenecks and blue pantsuits — follow, before her ultimate transformation in a yellow shirt with a floral motif, a plaid flannel, a black leather jacket and platform boots. Completing the outfit of this woman ready to move on is a gold Zippo.


In the film’s Warhol-like Factory setting, Swinton always appears dressed up for “all tomorrow's parties” that could never be. Her face is a canvas for a whole range of emotions: the pain of lost love, the desperation to fill the void left by it, the pride to conceal it, and the fear of being forgotten. But the performance takes on a poignancy while we’re all stuck in prolonged isolation.

The need for human communication has never felt more urgent. And as the cinema, the stage and the apartment become one in The Human Voice, it reflects our own situation, as we watch every movie on a streaming service confined to our homes.

Rating: 4/5

(The Human Voice will be available to rent and buy on BookMyShow Stream from 28 May.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!