Short films are commonly associated with film school students, emerging directors, and independent artists. In other words, this is usually the medium of the under-resourced, the wildly hopeful, and the nearly broke. That precarity is largely why short films are so essential—they speak to the earnest core of image-making, where high production values and corporate backing have little to no sway and the ideas themselves have to be strong enough to hold an audience.
At least, that’s how I like to romanticize the form. Naturally, there are also plenty of short films that are essentially commercials, bite-sized gimmicks formulated to generate impressive stats on YouTube and Vimeo. And somewhere in between my imagined ideal and the most blunt form of reality is the fashion film: Gregg Araki and Spike Jonze for Kenzo, Lena Dunham for Rachel Antonoff, Sofia Coppola for Chanel, Cara Fukunaga for Maiyet, and so on.
Typically helmed by a critically-acclaimed auteur with assured, though not necessarily hefty, financial backing, these short films, collection-promoting videos, and straight ads are like a sweet indulgence, something to do during the in-between time of gathering investors for the next project. Last year, Atlantics director Mati Diop made and starred in a pandemic-era short for Miu Miu; it’s good. (In one scene, the director tries on various gowns in the dark while listening to voicemails from her recently deceased grandmother). This fad also has an inverse, with luxury fashion designers crossing into feature film territory: Tom Ford became a filmmaker with his adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, and Rodarte’s designers Kate and Laura Muleavy with Woodshock.
Most recently, the prolific and rigorously colorful Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has waded into the genre with his short The Human Voice, a loose adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play that walks the line between film and Chanel sponcon. (Almodóvar previously adapted this material in his debut feature, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.) The director’s Oscar-shortlisted short, which premiered at Venice Film Festival last year, is set to hit theaters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and Chicago March 12. It features Tilda Swinton in ostentatious luxury suits, sets, robes, and accessories, as if reprising her relentlessly glamorous turn in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash. Once again, she is a fiercely desperate woman with an enviable life, if only for material reasons.
In the film’s opening scene, Swinton visits a hardware store to buy an axe. Her most considered act–the actress really lingers on it—is unveiling her Chanel wallet and slowly unzipping it to furnish a 50 dollar bill. Later, while on the phone with the lover who abandoned her, she indicates that she’s placed all his letters to her in “a little Chanel case.” The previous night, before taking a cocktail of sleeping pills, she’d whipped open her tiny mid-century modern closet to unveil a perfected line-up of outfits, as if she were a doll living in a tiny, precious house.
Almodóvar indicates that he’s aware of the extreme level of artifice on display, and that he’s deploying it intentionally. The camera zooms out to reveal that the protagonist’s home is a set on a soundstage; she even steps outside of the human-sized dollhouse to sit on a little stool, from which she can gaze at the unfinished exterior.
Cocteau’s original play is an extended monologue designed to demonstrate the skills of a seasoned performer. Yet there’s an essential mischief inherent to the work that draws out its dimensions. Cocteau works both with and against his actress’s abilities, placing her alone onstage but psychically bound to her lover. Pulling off this performance is both an impressive feat and, in the case of theater, an extremely repetitive one. Yet Almodóvar’s latest variation is flattened by stylishness that comes off as pointedly bought, not built. It’s a Luca Guadagnino problem suddenly cloaked on a much better director. Particularly after the excellent Pain and Glory, how did Almodóvar end up producing such a stilted riff on emotional torment and spiritual isolation? It’s hard not to walk away from the 30-minute film thinking the luxury fashion is partly to blame.
And yet, critics from the L.A. Times, The Telegraph, Polygon and more have loved this short since its Venice Film Festival debut in September, calling it well designed and emblematic of Almodóvar’s best work. The film’s visual focus on high fashion seems to have a way of lowering expectations for depth by way of artifice, which allows the short’s final moments to come off as especially profound. It’s easy to confuse Almodóvar’s usual stylistic choices—boldly hued set pieces, flashy and playful costuming, rule of thirds perfection—with the ones he employs in The Human Voice. But if you can appreciate that the stylistic beauty and severity of Wes Anderson’s films is itself substance, you’ll be able to spot the crucial differences between what Almodóvar does visually in his best work and what he pulls out here.
The Human Voice’s images tend to call out in vain; not an utterance is heard. They are symbols suspended in time and space, indicators of something that doesn’t seem to matter very much. Swinton could’ve given her performance anywhere, with anything to do; what is apparent from the film is her talent as a performer coupled with Almodóvar’s as a writer. But the rest comes off as a skillful demonstration of good taste—not art. Fitting, at least, for a fashion film.
When technical skill becomes the outstanding achievement in a film, the spectacle can easily amount to no more than a tasteful exercise. This is why low-budget films are as worthy as anything else—even a technically astounding image does not have inherent meaning. Beautiful things can get in the way, and it’s especially disappointing when a usually masterful and mischievous director like Almodóvar gets lost in them.
It’s a relief, then, that many of the audiences who feel safe heading to theaters to see The Human Voice over the next two weeks will watch the film alongside its superior predecessor, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. If you’re there, compare the two and see—really see!—if you can spot the differences.
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