Pedro Almodovar’s first work in the English language is another tale of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The language may have changed, but the themes and style remain: this is every inch an Almodovar work. The focus on female characters remains; the heightened melodrama; the bold colours and a unique sense of style. This is a beautiful work, fitting into the more classical mode of some of his later works (most notably Pain and Glory (2019)) rather than the raw expressivity of his early career. It is also a work of real precision, with immaculate set design; a rigid aesthetic and pronounced use of closeups throughout. This makes for a classy short, one of real visual beauty – and rids the work of any staginess (this feels like cinema, not a filmed play) – but it also feels strangely reserved, lacking the overwhelming passion of Almodovar’s greatest works.
As the beautifully stylised opening credits tell us, this work is ‘freely based on Jean Cocteau’s play’. The play itself being a 1930 monodrama about a young woman on the phone to her lover of five years. Her lover is to marry another woman the next day, causing our protagonist despair, and serving as the catalyst for a monologue that triggers her depression. It is an emotive work, one that has been adapted several times over the years, and one that was born out of a want to give actors more to do – to give them a greater sense of authorship, or ownership, of a work. Before this play, Cocteau was criticised for his works being too writer or director focused; this spotlighting of an actor – in a play that relies solely on their voice – was a direct response to that. Considering Almodovar’s expressionistic cinema, clearly inspired by Cocteau, and his focus on female agency, this play seems like a natural choice. After all, the play was already a part of Law of Desire (1987), as slyly alluded to in this latest work where the title of that film comes up in dialogue.
As a translation of Cocteau’s intent, this is a great success. Here, Tilda Swinton takes ownership of the film through the only real role – accompanied by a dog and speaking to her lover through AirPods. Unsurprisingly, her performance is excellent. She conveys a range of emotions and makes a pure monologue deeply compelling. It is an artificial feeling work, but this is inherent to the material. The whole situation is forced, an overt actors exercise and little more, and a sense of theatricality is inherent. Earlier adaptations feel lessened by this, a 2018 short starring Rosamund Pike gives us a strong performance but the barebones cinematic adaptation shows the limitations of the text – and the monologue starts to get dull. A 1966 adaptation, from Ted Kotcheff and starring Ingrid Bergman, is more successful but still feels limited by staginess. These earlier works also retain a lingering discomfort: we are simply watching a woman succumbing to despair; we cannot hear the other side of the conversation and we do not know the wider context. The work just falls into the, often pernicious, cliché of displaying a hysterical woman reliant on male affection for her sanity.
Almodovar’s version does not fully evade these critiques but is a better counter to them than before. First of all, it is still clearly an actors exercise. This is Swinton’s work. She defines the pace and feel of the work, it matches whatever energy she produces. Her being able to move round the set, and the beauty of the set itself, are enough to keep engagement throughout. The mere act of movement also gives her a sense of agency that is otherwise missing; previously, our protagonist – nameless, in a way that could be read as reductive – was locked in place, speaking down a landline. Now, Swinton can be expressive and move beyond the human voice. This could rob the work of its singular impact but it is a reminder than an actor can supplement a vocal performance with wider aspects. Swinton’s voice is still centre stage – the choice to have it in English, not Spanish, a smart one as it retains the beauty of her vocal performance, showcasing the power of natural speech – but she is able to elevate the monologue with actorly flourishes.
Yet, the whole thing is arch. It takes place in a deconstructed, post-modern set. We are in a warehouse, with an apartment built in the centre. The apartment has no roof and the camera often rises up to film it as if it was a blueprint. The most overt influence here is Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003) but some of the falsity of that is swapped for specificity and verisimilitude. The apartment is immaculately realised, full of aesthetic objects that are oh-so-Almodovar, but also full of symbolic touches. Some of these are too on the nose – though not as on the nose as the direction of previous adaptations. Early on, we have a selection of thematic appropriate films (in a DVD and Blu-ray collection) that all hint towards the film’s themes, and to where it will go. This could be a nice background detail but Swinton’s character literally sorts them out as they are shot in closeup, packing them up for no real reason but to showcase them to the audience, rubbing our nose in symbolism for symbolism’s sake. This is indicative of a wider issue. Yes, it is all very cinematic and incredibly beautiful: the production design is jaw-dropping, even the warehouse looks brilliant and all of it is filmed so well by legendary cinematographer José Luis Alcaine. But, the artifice of it all drains it of passion and emotion.
This is a distanced and affected work from a filmmaker usually able to imbue films with such passion. Everything is precise and beautiful – even a trip to a shop to buy an axe is presented like shopping for high fashion – but this is somewhat to its detriment. This lingering feeling is influenced by the short’s creation: this is a work made during the Covid-19 pandemic that was limited by it. Admittedly, these limitations become part of the film – it uses them to its advantage. Also, the heightened emotion of this work is satisfying and the more transgressive movements towards the end bring more power and agency to a character that has previously not had enough. It is a more interesting work than previous versions because of this. Yet, it does not go far enough. The melodrama and theatrics – hyperbolised emotion from a locked down woman – clearly come from the pain of lockdown. This is all well and good but that naturalistic and honest aim is told through artifice, and ultimately to its detriment.