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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: The Burning Presence of Tilda Swinton in ‘The Human Voice’

March 29, 2021
4 min read time

It’s not often that Tilda Swinton stars in a short film. Nor is it frequent that director Pedro Almodóvar (Volver, The Skin I Live In) would endeavor to make a short film of someone else’s work. But right now is far from ordinary, and there’s little doubt The Human Voice would exist if not for the pandemic. Every once in a blue moon, good things come from the bad, and this is one of them.

The premise is simple: a woman tries to convince an ex that she’s still the one he belongs with, but in Almodóvar's version, it feels much more urgent and symbolic than that. While The Human Voice is a remake of a 1967 film and adapted from the play by Jean Cocteau, the update is very 2020.

Here are five takeaways for screenwriters from The Human Voice. 

The Power of Symbolism.  There is a very aptly placed and used axe in the film, and there’s something beyond captivating watching a technicolor Swinton calmly purchase and carry said axe. The anticipation... What will this well-dressed, immaculate-looking woman do with this rudimentary axe?! The axe itself is not only a symbol of destruction, but also a symbol of thunder and giver of life. The duality of this one prop giving Swinton an ending and a beginning is quite lovely. Of course, the axe is put to good use destructively, but also harmlessly, because a woman isn't that simple, either. Rather, she is a complex, angry and soft creature all at once. 

Perfecting a Theme.  Almodóvar has been perfecting variations on a theme for most of his career. Some say this film can be thought of as a sequel to his Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which also tracks a woman in the wake of a traumatic break-up. Almodóvar also references the play directly in his film Law of Desire. The filmmaker is often attracted to exploring the art of performance and the idea of performing a role for those around them. In all of the aforementioned films, women are often performing for the men in their lives and this movie is no exception. As the audience only hears one side of the break-up conversation from Swinton, it is difficult to say just how much of her conversation is a performance, what is genuine, and if she might simply be only talking to herself.

It’s also constantly evident that Almodóvar loves women. They are often the story engine, the force of narrative structure, and they make the moves to drive the men forward in their life, as Swinton does here in ultimately driving this break-up more than she might even know. When a filmmaker spends a career examining the same themes — and when they have Almodóvar's talent — even a short film becomes a must-see. 

Setting As Theme.  The set of The Human Voice is jaw-dropping. Swinton’s home is immaculately built on a soundstage recently featured in Architectural Digest. No expense on any detail was spared, and the audience is soon in on the gimmick and finds themselves questioning if this is happening to Swinton’s character, is she rehearsing for a show, or is she dreaming it all up in her own imagination? Almodóvar collaborated with art director Antxón Gómez on the set, who told Architectural Digest of their intentions: "In the end, everything is designed like a box [the studio] with another box inside [the construction] and the combined structure creates a theatrical stage. Pedro had always conceived of it on a film set, like in the original piece. It’s a mix between reality and fantasy.” And a spectacularly gorgeous fantasy it happens to be. 

The Open-Ended Narrative.  No final ending spoilers, but there is no doubt Almodóvar and Swinton want the audience to be active participants in this particular moment of time. Unlike the perfectly constructed set, answers to the story will not fit in neat little boxes. Instead, thoughts and ideas about the power of a woman in pain spill over in a mess, teetering on the edge of tragedy. That said, Almodóvar ends this piece with a lot of hope. When Swinton steps into the sun, her potential still feels endless. 

Technicolor Dreams.  Gomez told Architectural Digest the set was also meant to represent a love nest and the look was populated with bright, warm colors and mid-century modern design. “We brought things from Los Angeles, Paris, Italy, Madrid, and as is customary, we also used pieces from Mr. Almodóvar’s private collection. Every element has intention.” In the past, Almodóvar has said his relationship with color is very intense; “an almost loving relationship.” He’s also said blue, yellow and red are his favorites because he finds them the most human. Swinton wears red the most in this film, and when one looks up the color's meaning, it represents a myriad of this woman's power in a moment of crisis: Life, health, vigor, war, courage, anger, love and fervor — all the simultaneous moments of a break-up. 

Final Takeaway: The Human Voice, like all Almodóvar films, brings with it many Almodóvar trademarks, including his signature use of color, his love of strong women, and the themes he most often embraces. Writers can learn from his fastidiousness to detail, and his thought into symbolism and theme with every aspect of the production. The film is a must-see for any Almodóvar or Swinton fan.


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