The Guardian-Ryan Gilbey
Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton. Photograph: Ó El Deseo/Nico Bustos
The director and actor have finally achieved ‘a far-fetched dream’ by working together on his first film in English, The Human Voice. They talk about their mutual admiration, filming in lockdown – and how falling in love can destroy your sense of humour
For more than 30 years, the film-maker Pedro Almodóvar has had a voice in his head – The Human Voice, that is. In Jean Cocteau’s monologue, first performed in 1930, a woman goes to pieces during a telephone conversation with her soon-to-be-ex lover. The audience hears only one side of the exchange, lending her the upper hand in the drama at the precise moment she has been robbed of everything else.
Almodóvar has now adapted Cocteau’s piece into a typically plush half-hour short starring Tilda Swinton as the injured party, though this isn’t his first brush with the material. A performance of the play is glimpsed in his seamy 1987 masterpiece The Law of Desire, while it was also the inspiration for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the 1988 screwball comedy that gave him his first international hit.
Why has it haunted him for so long? “This is such a mystery,” he tells me – by phone, appropriately enough, in between rehearsals with Penélope Cruz for their latest collaboration, Parallel Mothers. “It’s a dramatic situation I love. More than once I’ve used that idea of the abandoned woman standing on the edge of the abyss. It injects a certain dynamism into what comes next because she has lost all control.”
The short retains elements of his earlier homages to the play: the axe with which Carmen Maura destroys the set in The Law of Desire is now wielded by Swinton, while there is also a fire in the apartment in the new film, as there was in Women on the Verge. This modern take on Cocteau (which follows previous interpretations: Anna Magnani in Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 film L’amore, and Ingrid Bergman in a 1966 TV movie, as well as an opera by Francis Poulenc) has picked up bits and bobs from Almodóvar’s back catalogue on its way to the screen.
It has also received an infusion of his own experience. “I’m going to give you one example,” he says. “But don’t ask for more.” He points me toward the moment in the film when Swinton’s character confesses that she can never be funny in her lover’s presence. She can be “special, daring, submissive, thin, passionate”, she admits, but she loses her sense of humour when she is crazy about someone. “That has happened to me,” Almodóvar says. “Isn’t that awful?”
The director, who had one of his biggest critical successes in 2019 with the contemplative, Oscar-nominated Pain and Glory, is now 71. When he first set out to adapt the play, only to accidentally write Women on the Verge instead, he was in his late 30s and renowned for punky, scandalous comedies and psycho-dramas. How did his approach to the text change in the interim? “When I re-read it now, it seemed to me that the female character was too submissive. I felt a modern-day woman wouldn’t be able to identify with that behaviour. It just doesn’t happen now, does it? What I tried was to give Tilda’s character more autonomy. I even changed the ending so it becomes more an act of revenge, a statement of independence.”
The Human Voice is also Almodóvar’s first work in English. Though he speaks the language fluently enough, most of his answers to my questions slide eventually into Spanish; a translator sitting with him in Madrid picks up the slack. “I felt if the text was in Spanish, it would feel much more melodramatic,” he says. “Our language is warmer. The words when spoken in Spanish almost burn. English introduces a certain distance.”
He was nervous, he says, about not working in his mother tongue. “But Tilda was the key. Her presence, her faith in me – it was all down to her talent that I still felt I was the same person in English that I am in Spanish. And she had a complete knowledge of my work!” He sounds touched, almost bashful. “I didn’t realise she knew it so well.”
Swinton tells me later by email that Women on the Verge was her introduction to Almodóvar. “I think the shot that truly did it for me was Julieta Serrano on the back of the motorbike in the chase sequence in the tunnel, with her wig blown backwards into a candy floss profile. The combination of Johnny Guitar, Ray Cooney, Jean Cocteau and the Beano blew my mind right there. I almost certainly saw it at the great Lumiere cinema on St Martin’s Lane. It was 1988, I think: that was the year we were planning to shoot Derek Jarman’s War Requiem and developing The Last of England. During the 1980s and 1990s, Pedro felt like a Spanish cousin to Derek and those of us working in underground and queer cinema in London at the time.”
Actor and director had seen one another over the years at what Swinton calls “shy-makingly awkward Big Cine events. We were often the two standing on the periphery near each other, looking out at the glittering throng, not saying anything but occasionally catching each other’s eye and giggling.” The possibility of working together felt like a far-fetched dream. “I once plucked up the nerve to suggest to him that I could always either learn Spanish or play a mute, but I had little real hope. I was under no illusion that there were precious few gingery, boyish, angular, Scottish anglophone freaks in his circus.”
What she found when she arrived on set was exactly what she had relished in his films all these years. “I’ve had the privilege several times in my life of stepping into a frame the signature of which I already know very well – Béla Tarr’s, for example, or Wes Anderson’s or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s – and it’s a trip. In Pedro’s case, his colours, his environments, his gestures, his people are so recognisable, so particular, that I found it a leap of faith to bring myself over the threshold.” Were there any choices of his that she found surprising? “Working with him was in many ways supremely unsurprising,” she says. “I feel I’ve been watching his work for so long and know the song of his sensibility so well by now that it was a little like stepping into a foregone conclusion.”
Almodóvar’s experience of Swinton was almost the opposite. “Tilda is tremendously curious and adventurous. What I didn’t know is that she has her own individual way of working, her own system. When I gave her instructions, she would think aloud about the way to do things. I’ve never worked in that way with anyone before.”
Nor have either of them ever made anything under such restrictive circumstances. All things considered, Almodóvar did not have too punishing a lockdown. He explained last month to the New York Times that changes in his personal life had left him better equipped to handle the isolation. “I’ve become more reclusive over the last 15 years – I’m still interested in what’s going on, but I’ve decided to give up the physical, sexual and chemical excitements – and that’s why quarantine didn’t take me by surprise.”
In the early stages last spring, he wrote several extended online diary entries in which the unstable present intersected poignantly with the past. He wrote of his conversations with Sean Connery, whom he had met at a festival, and who later phoned him after seeing his 2002 film Talk to Her. Almodóvar also reflected on the ways in which he felt that he and Antonio Banderas had been manipulated and exploited by Madonna during the shooting of her 1991 documentary In Bed with Madonna (AKA Truth Or Dare). He wrote, too, of his lockdown viewing habits, especially the films of “my beloved” Brian de Palma, to whom he pays homage in The Human Voice with several overhead shots that make Swinton’s blatantly artificial apartment, housed as it is within a giant film studio, look like a blueprint.
When it came to making the short last July, the cast and crew were subject to strict social distancing restrictions and regular testing. What was it like to be shooting a film while others were administering the last rites to cinema?
“The experience, for all of us, of stepping back into a studio in July, all masked up and scrupulously safe and sound, was a very important one,” says Swinton. “To be working, to be making a film for the cinema, at a time when so many people were wondering if that would ever be possible again, was exhilarating. We proved to ourselves the heady fact that we can still work, even under this pandemic; it does not need to rob us of everything we can cherish. For all of us who worked on this film in our studio in Madrid this summer, it was like an act of resolute and celebratory faith in cinema.”
It seems important to both actor and director, too, that The Human Voice should be seen on the big screen wherever possible. Don’t forget that it was Almodóvar who led the charge against streaming when he was jury president at the Cannes film festival in 2017 – the year that two Netflix productions, Bong Joon Ho’s Okja (that starred Swinton) and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, were in competition. (Neither won any prizes.) “I’ll be fighting for one thing that I’m afraid the new generation is not aware of,” Almodóvar said at the time. “It’s the capacity of the hypnosis of the large screen for the viewer.”
Swinton’s faith in cinema remains similarly undimmed. “The screen projects I am developing are all, bar none, intended for the big screen,” she tells me. And the directors she is working with “are not ready yet to give up making that intention good”. She has quite the roll-call of pandemic-delayed movies coming up. Anderson’s The French Dispatch, also starring Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet, was set to debut at Cannes last year until the festival was cancelled; it has been confirmed instead for this July’s festival, where it will likely be joined in competition by another of Swinton’s films, Memoria, which is the first English-language feature by Weerasethakul (winner of the Palme d’Or in 2010 for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives).
Also ready is Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II, where she once again plays the mother of her real-life daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne. And she kept busy during lockdown shooting yet another movie with Hogg: The Eternal Daughter, a ghost story filmed in Wales. Meanwhile, she recently finished making Three Thousand Years of Longing, with Idris Elba and Mad Max director George Miller.
“I think,” Swinton emails, “one of the most striking things about the last 13 months is how unanimously society as a whole – not just cine-nuts like us – have been craving the big-screen experience.” She hits caps lock for emphasis: “FILM FOREVER and everywhere, wide and wild. As it says on the bottom of Hollywood contracts: Through the universe in perpetuity. Amen.”
The Human Voice is in cinemas for one night only on 19 May. Click here for tickets.