Tilda Swinton and Pedro Almodóvar Are Exactly What the Movies Need Right Now

Erik Maza
·3 min read
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

From Town & Country

Confined to her home for reasons unknown, a woman stares at the wall, paces, picks out outfits, makes phone calls, and slowly begins to unravel. Sound familiar? We all performed a version of that scene during lockdown, but Pedro Almodóvar translated the experience into a meditation on forbearance and the new lease on life that awaits on the other side of heartbreak. Except, in his telling, we’re all dressed like Tilda Swinton in straight-off-the-runway Balenciaga gowns. If only.

The Spanish auteur didn’t set out to make a film about the strangeness of 2020, but his new work, The Human Voice, may end up the first definitive portrait of a most surreal period.

“It’s very odd, isn’t it?” he tells T&C. “The film became almost like a metaphor for the life that we are living.”

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The 30-minute short, his first English-language production, is expected to hit the art house circuit on March 5 (in a rotating double bill with his Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother, and Volver), during an unprecedented limbo for the movies in which the full-fledged reopening of theaters remains an open question. None of this is lost on Almodóvar, who is a tireless evangelist for the idea of cinema as communal sanctuary, the venue where we work out our shared anxieties.

“People today can see pictures in formats that didn’t exist 50 years ago,” Almodóvar says, “but we should still go into that big, dark space and sit surrounded by ‘anonymous strangers,’ as Susan Sontag used to say, so the movies have the power to take us away, to kidnap our attention.” (Preproduction on the project took place during quarantine, and filming started last summer in Spain under strict safety protocols.)

Photo credit: El Deseo Iglesias Mas
Photo credit: El Deseo Iglesias Mas


Like Martin Scorsese in the U.S., Almodóvar is religious about film preservation, his life’s work a testament to the medium as a balm for the soul. At 71 he finds himself looking back, evaluating, tweaking, and indulging…if not nostalgia, then a chance to re­­engage with his cinematic past.

The Human Voice, which features costumes and sets used in previous films, and music by frequent collaborator Alberto Iglesias, is a loose adaptation of a 1930 Jean Cocteau monologue that the director has been kicking around since at least 1987 (the year Law of Desire introduced a young heartthrob named Antonio Banderas to the world).

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Its plot, about a woman sequestered in her apartment and falling spectacularly apart, will resonate with fans, but this latest concoction is served with a hell of a twist, even by Almodóvar standards. For starters, the heroine, who was played by a distraught Anna Magnani in Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 adaptation, is turbocharged into life by a possessed Swinton dripping in designer labels: Cartier, Loewe, Hermès—so many they get their own acknowledgment in the credits.

Photo credit: ALBERTO PIZZOLI - Getty Images
Photo credit: ALBERTO PIZZOLI - Getty Images

“She was completely David Bowie in some scenes, very like Deborah Kerr in others,” Almo­dóvar says. “It’s not often you have these geniuses in one person.” Almodóvar took a serious liberty with Cocteau’s text: Rather than leave the protagonist crippled by despair inside her four walls, he set her loose. In his interpretation, Swinton straps on a three-piece Dries Van Noten look, lights her home on fire as if she’s exorcising a bad spirit, and takes off with the dog.

“Fire is purifying, isn’t it? And I thought it was essential to actually get rid of all that feeling of mourning that she was holding on to,” he says. “It’s one of the happiest endings, really, in all of my films.”

In Almodóvar’s world, as in Shakespeare’s, all is resolved with a few tears, and a journey. If only.

This story appears in the February 2021 issue of Town & Country.
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