Just as the Cannes film festival wrapped up last week, the Venice film festival – only six weeks away – stepped in to steal the spotlight, announcing to much excitement that it will open with Parallel Mothers, the new, Penelope Cruz-starring feature by Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar fans can consider themselves quite spoilt these days: only last year, Spain’s leading film-maker unveiled a different film at Venice, which last week landed on Mubi for your streaming pleasure.
The Human Voice is different from previous Almodóvar works, however. It’s his first film in English, for starters, and pairs him with Tilda Swinton, an actor currently leading the bingo game among her peers for who can rack up the most (and most esoteric) major auteur collaborations in the course of her career. It’s fun to imagine the likes of Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche fuming that Swinton – who just popped up in Cannes in new films by Wes Anderson, Joanna Hogg and Apichatpong Weerasethakul – beat them to Almodóvar too.
But then, The Human Voice wouldn’t have taken up too much room in Swinton’s schedule, given its key distinction from the rest of Almodóvar’s recent oeuvre: it’s a half-hour short, returning to a format that most directors of his standing leave behind in their formative youth. Thirty minutes of Almodóvar, however, contains more life and verve than most directors can cram into two hours. The great joy of The Human Voice – his take on the much-adapted Jean Cocteau monodrama from 1930 – is that it plays in the best possible way like compressed, concentrated Almodóvar, minus any added water. The melodrama twists and pivots emotionally by the minute, while his signature primary-colour palette feels somehow extra-saturated, as if you might touch the screen and feel wet paint.
Alone throughout on screen, but taking up all its space in a parade of iridescent haute couture, Swinton plays a nameless, recently dumped woman, trying to talk her ex into reconciliation over the course of an increasingly frenzied phone call. In the process, she races through at least one mood per minute. It’s a dizzying showcase for Swinton as an all-out screen diva – like Bette Davis drawn only in sharp angles – and merely watching her in full, abbreviated cry is a blast. Add Almodóvar on top of his formal game, and you see why maybe they had to make a short together rather than a feature: watching hours of this would be like eating six desserts at once.
It handily out-glitters any previous attempt to film Cocteau’s play, though Roberto Rossellini’s comparatively austere version, starring his then-lover Anna Magnani in devastated, dishevelled form in the 1948 anthology film L’amore, is well worth a look on the BFI Player. (Coincidentally, another Rossellini muse, Ingrid Bergman, later performed it for TV: the results are harder to stream, though clips can be found online. Ditto a respectable version made only a few years ago with Rosamund Pike.)
It does rather make you wish more A-list film-makers would keep it brief more often. The delightful website Short of the Week specifically has a “Famous Filmmakers” channel where you can see early works by the likes of Taika Waititi (who got an Oscar nomination for his sweet Kiwi car park romance Two Cars, One Night) and Lulu Wang, whose moving Chinese generation-gap study Touch led directly to her breakout feature The Farewell. Christopher Nolan’s tellingly stylish, three-minute tease Doodlebug is readily available on YouTube, while Martin Scorsese isn’t giving away his early doodles so easily, gathered as they are on a slick Criterion Blu-ray. But Almodóvar’s late-career feat of maximalist minimalism is a rare treat: a film-maker at the height of his powers, bringing the full benefit of his experience and polish to a form that rarely gets such lavish love.
Also new on streaming and DVD
In his first film since the beloved, series-generating Dear White People, writer-director Justin Simien swerves unexpectedly into horror, without dropping his wry ruminations on Black identity in America. A killer weave is the essential premise here, and the loopy, tonally variable results are both duly absurd and more thoughtful than you might guess.
In the future, as Earth burns, survivalists seek life on Mars. Debut director Wyatt Rockefeller’s impressively atmospheric sci-fi centres on a family of them, quietly working the dusty red land until hostile visitors arrive – and it seems they may not have been the first settlers after all. A fine cast including Jonny Lee Miller and Sofia Boutella, and aridly striking visuals, make this a cut above others in its genre.
Two of Us
(Curzon Home Cinema/BFI Player)
The Italian director Filippo Meneghetti’s French debut feature cracked the shortlist for last year’s foreign-language Golden Globe on the strength of its direct emotional punch and superb performances. As longtime neighbours and lesbian lovers struggling to bring a secret romance into the open, Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier are heartbreaking enough to cancel out the film’s contrivances.
Here’s an image for a scorching summer week: one hot day in the Angolan capital of Luanda, air conditioners begin mysteriously falling from buildings. As humble security guard Matacedo attempts to secure one for his demanding boss, this surreal setup spins out into both a pulsating city portrait and a meditation of historical injustice and social inequality – directed with great verve by Angolan film-maker Fradique.