Almodóvar Paints Life Red, Again

Woman in a red dress behind plastic curtain

La voz humana/ The Human Voice by Pedro Almodóvar – 2020


Unlike in 2019, when I attended a viewing of Pain and Glory at the New York Film Festival, this year I closed the blinds, turned off the lights, and watched Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice in my home, which is based on a play originally written by Jean Cocteau in 1928. An early frame shows Tilda Swinton’s character dressed in a red bell gown, standing behind a clear plastic sheet, back to the camera, with no other humans around. She stays still just a few seconds, and in that moment I was reminded that literature, films, art—nothing is created within a vacuum. It’s with this frame that Almodóvar acknowledges what he and everyone else has been through the greater part of this year. How else to describe the current year but with an analogy of once-inhabited spaces now absent of bodies? The thin layer of plastic separating Swinton from the camera is a mask that blurs her back, hair, and the round of a protruding dress fitting for an awards night in a different century, too lavish for what seems to be an abandoned factory. Like the character, we’ve been concealing ourselves behind plastic and cloth, waiting to wear a pop of red on a night out, but instead having to accept that human absence is what’ll keep us alive.

At first glance, the red dress provided me with the comfort of Almodóvar’s familiarity. While I appreciate the plot, setting, and the characters’ arc of his filmography, I often can’t help but focus heavily on his signature bold reds. In Volver, Raimunda grips a knife stained in dark blood as she wears a cherry sweater with tiny holes that show her skin. In All About My Mother, seconds before Manuela witnesses a life-altering moment in the pouring rain, the tepid front-store lights gleam on her crimson jacket as she holds an umbrella with a colorful beach ball design. Who could forget Antonio Banderas as Ricky in that tight-red turtleneck in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!? It would be an understatement to say Almodóvar uses this color, instead, red is an undercurrent in his films, a tool that allows him to unfold a story, flesh out characters, facilitate a setting, and to create a remarkable frame. The color thrives in the foreground, but it’s also present in the background as the pigment of lamps, sofas, paintings, walls, cabinets, kitchen tiles, and more. In a Q&A that I attended some years ago at the MoMA, where to my surprise different scenes of his films were played and Almodóvar proceeded to analyze each one, he mentioned how the details—especially each color—are carefully planned to provide context and meaning. In a recent essay for Architectural Digest Spain, the director writes: “[The color] red is life and death, you can’t ask for more.”

In the frame where Swinton has her back to the viewer, there are five red objects that contrast with the gray room. Three are perched on the walls, two as caution signs, and one is a rolled-up hose. On the ground there are two buckets, one blue, one red, both with a hint of white. Then there’s the gown. I take in these details wondering what’s to come. Definitely danger. Maybe danger seeped in loneliness. The gown is introduced within plastic opaqueness before its grand reveal, and Almodóvar uses it to pull back a curtain and present a story about a woman whose lover will be getting married to someone else. The red dress in this frame holds different meanings. Want. Loneliness. Passion. The Human Voice is inherently about desire, and that moment sets the tone for a film that was created within the talons of coronavirus.

The black and gray space that fill up most of this frame is a nod to our communal solitude. We can see each other through screens, and plastic masks, but we are still disconnected. What follows in the short film is the character’s fear of being abandoned and her desire to be accompanied by more than her former lover’s dog. There are, of course, more empty spaces and more reds in the short, but the initial red gown’s frame even goes as far as presenting the need for human touch. I too, in the middle of this pandemic, have worn a dress and heels with nowhere to go but within the enclosure of my own home. Just to feel something on my skin, or to quell the monotony and isolation of the pandemic. The desire that this scarlet dress shouts is universal—wanting, like us, to be seen somewhere other than within the constraints of an empty room.

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