‘The Human Voice’ Review: Almodóvar Meets Cocteau Meets Swinton

A woman is brought to the end of her rope by a recalcitrant former lover. In what could be their last exchange, she speaks to the man over the phone. She cajoles, she feigns composure, she sneers, she renounces — things get kind of crazy.

Sounds like a Pedro Almodóvar movie. It was, and it is again. It’s a little complicated.

This movie, a mere 30 minutes in length but as fully fleshed out as almost any feature by the dazzling Spanish filmmaker, is an adaptation of the venerable 1930 monodrama “La Voix Humaine,” a magnificent actress’s aria by Jean Cocteau. Back in 1988, Almodóvar borrowed its narrative elements for his film “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” which helped the director advance into the mainstream. Previously, he’d been a near-underground cult figure.

Almodóvar had been planning to make an English-language film for some time, and now he’s done it, working with the British actress Tilda Swinton. Does this sound like a match made in heaven? Yeah, it pretty much is. Almodóvar’s sense of cinema design — the décor simulates a luxe apartment and lays it bare as a soundstage illusion — is acutely keyed to Swinton’s performance here, which projects mercurial emotion with Swiss watch precision.

The credits specify that this is a “free” adaptation of the Cocteau work. One factor of that freedom is that the monologue doesn’t begin until about 10 minutes in — unlike Cocteau’s work. But Almodóvar’s own poetic spirit meshes nicely with that of the old master’s throughout. Hardly surprising.

The Human Voice
Rated R for language. In English and Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 30 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.

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