In The Human Voice, Tilda Swinton makes an art of loneliness
In the sixth season of HBO’s pro-consumer heterosexual fantasy Gender and city (1998â2004), her heroine, Carrie Bradshaw, visits an art gallery in Chelsea and is bored in front of a performance that parodies a work by Marina Abramovivs. The false Abramovivs is trapped on a high platform, held in place by ladders made of kitchen knives, silent and solemn and serene. âThere are depressed women all over town doing the exact same thing,â Carrie notes, rolling her eyes. “ Put a phone on that rig and it’s just a typical Friday night waiting for a guy to call. If the “ guy ” in question had indeed called, the resulting scene might have looked like Pedro AlmodÃ³var’s last film, Human voice (2020): a light and chic short film in which actress Tilda Swinton leads a twenty-minute telephone conversation on the phone with her ex-lover, touring a beautiful apartment that turns out to be a backdrop built on a sound -stage. There are times when Swinton, carrying herself with the unnatural grace of a performance artist under observation, is silent, solemn, and serene, and there are others when she is desperate, incandescent, embarrassing, frightening, and ready for revenge.
Knives play a role in AlmodÃ³var’s portrayal of his principal’s nervous breakdown, much like a literal ax that ends up being used not in the third Chkovian act, but in the first, even before the phone starts to go. ring. It’s nearly impossible for a director to show a woman buying an ax – like Swinton does here, or like Isabelle Huppert does in the awesome rape comedy by Paul Verhoeven. It (2016) – without making us think of a castrated or killed man. The violation in this case is less bloody, but perhaps no less painful: we are forced to witness the dismemberment of an impeccable Balenciaga costume. “ There was a time, for four consecutive years until three days ago, ” suggests Swinton in voiceover, fingering DVDs of Written on the wind (1952) and All that the sky allows (1955), âwhen I waited for youâ. With these props AlmodÃ³var signals that we are not actually about to see an art film, but a melodrama – Sirkian in its emotional intensity, a small camp in its juxtaposition of despair and high fashion. âIn the future,â she assures her absent lover, âI will be a practical woman. And I have to stay busy: that’s what my therapist says. Hearing the practicality invoked by this glamorous, never-named person is funny, incongruous, like hearing a hitman talk about his passion for romantic comedies. Because we know she is an actress and looks like Tilda Swinton, we assume she has to to be Tilda Swinton or a version of her: heartbroken; imbalance; sufficiently self-aware to understand that actresses, in the eyes of the industry, age in dog years rather than human years. (A dog, in fact, is his only co-star for about nine-tenths of the film.) ‘You won’t believe it, but [my agent] Fabien says that women my age are back in fashion, âshe observes dryly. âI think it’s a fucking joke. I am a ruin of what I once was.
The fact that Swinton is far from a ruin is, of course, why AlmodÃ³var’s film is more than a trifle: few actresses would be able to hold an audience’s attention while doing nothing. more than drinking, sleeping, taking pills and talking on the phone with such phosphorescent ease. âCustomers love my pallor,â she said wryly. âThis mixture of madness and melancholy. Swinton periodically transformed into a performance artist between 1995 and 2013 – sleeping in a glass box at various institutions, including MoMA, for a work of art called The maybe – functioned in the same way, hinging as they did on the desire to simply observe a star.
Adapted “ freely ” from the 1930 play of the same name by Jean Cocteau, Human voice is AlmodÃ³var’s first collaboration with the actress, as well as his first foray into cinema outside of his native language, Spanish; he was inspired by the same source for his 1988 film Women on the verge of nervous breakdown, although this movie ended in pregnancy and this one ends in hell. Towards the end of her long conversation with the Invisible Man, Swinton’s character begins to circle the dark truth at the center of relationships in which men keep women waiting – and these women keep the house, keep their alienating emotions to themselves – same, keep their weight low and their dye jobs well maintained. In doing so, the woman who waits loses an elementary part of herself. âI wasn’t funny with you,â she admits. âI was special, daring, submissive, slim. The relationship, like the apartment, is a simulacrum arranged on a soundstage. “I’m your master now,” she told the sad eyed dog, though she might as well talk to herself.
Main picture: Tilda Swinton in Pedro AlmodÃ³var ‘s Human voice, 2021, film still. Courtesy: El Deseo DASLU; photograph: Iglesias Mas