Tilda Swinton: “At Almodóvar, I feel at home”

In the mythical wake of Anna Magnani or Simone Signoret, the Scottish actress is the interpreter of human voice, by Jean Cocteau, directed by Pedro Almodóvar for a short film. A lifelong dream that the filmmaker finally realizes, like an act of faith. And a meeting between two great artists.

On the one hand, Pedro Almodóvar, emblematic figure of the revival of Spanish cinema, popular author adored by all, insatiable storyteller of the great pillars of existence, love, death, desire, creation, reality, fiction . On the other, the elusive Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, chic personality of the arty planet, demanding filmography, laser-like green eyes, royal medal profile, peroxide hair on an androgynous body that drives fashion crazy. Pedro Almodóvar could not fail to be seduced by this intriguing figure with multiple femininity. He, the sentimental, exuberant and carnal filmmaker, chose to celebrate cinema and women this actress with rather conceptual choices who feels emotions more than she expresses them – in the Mediterranean sense at least. Tilda Swinton embodies “Elle”, this desperate character in the new short film by Almodóvar, a personal and very free adaptation of the play by Jean Cocteau human voice, written in 1930.

It is a monologue around the separation in love which rubbed shoulders in the past with actresses of the caliber of Anna Magnani or Simone Signoret. The story can be summed up in two words: a woman abandoned by her lover has been waiting three days for him to call her. She wants to talk to him, she wants to hear him. She tells herself, remembers, to maintain the link and stay alive. On the phone, no one answers. She connects the shots. Furnish the silence. She knows it, she is ashamed. It is this mixture of self-awareness and touching vulnerability that Pedro Almodóvar, adorer of women and master of melodrama, perfectly knew how to render.

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In video, “The human voice”, the trailer

A breath in the work of the filmmaker based in Madrid who, in the meantime, has tackled a new project with his “muse” Penélope Cruz (Madres Paralelas). Tilda Swinton, she found her favorite director Wes Anderson for The French Dispatch, the release of which is eagerly awaited.

“A real balancing act”

“It was in 2019, in Colombia. I was shooting a film under the direction of the director of the Thai avant-garde Apichatpong Weerasethakul. We were isolated on a farm in the mountains, surrounded by gigantic forests. The wifi was struggling to work. And suddenly I received an email. Pedro Almodóvar offered me the role of Elle in The Human Voice. Pedro invited me to dance with him and with Cocteau. Do you realize? A real miracle. She is a character and a woman very different from me, in her way of speaking, of moving, of expressing herself. In the play, she plays the actress with a capital A. She likes melodrama, goes from the most extroverted fury to the darkest introspection. So I was quite dependent on Pedro Almodóvar’s direction, his expectations as a director, his vision of the character while trying to keep a bit of myself. A real balancing act that I could not have accomplished without his assurance, his energy and his kindness. The cinema he creates is a world in itself with its rules, its interiority, its atmosphere, which gradually absorbs you.”

Tilda Swinton: “My first shock was with Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown which I saw when it came out in 1988.” Nico Bustos / El Deseo

“Filming Emotions”

“My first shock, I felt it with Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown that I saw when it came out in 1988. A delirious film which observes no rules, an explosive cocktail full of references. One thinks both of Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, by Nicholas Ray, for the strength that emerges, to the sometimes delirious and always poetic universe of Georges Feydeau or even to Benny Hill for his burlesque scenes. I can also quote Volver, talk to her Where Pain and Glory. I like the way Almodóvar knows how to mix the present and the past, to describe tenderness and to film the deepest emotions. All served by the interpretation of sublime actors and brilliant staging.

In this film, for example, he created two interlocking spaces, like a mise-en-abîme, which brings relief to the character. Pedro remains a figurehead of the Spanish underground scene, which eventually joins the one I frequented in London during the 1980s with the director Derek Jarman, for whom I played in Caravaggio. Almodóvar is a kind of Spanish cousin, an artist who has built a singular, multifaceted, intimate, unclassifiable work, which is marked by his exceptional knowledge of the history of art, cinema and by his personal life.”

“Cinema abolishes borders”

“Pedro and I met, here and there, at major film events. We would both meet, silently watching those shining crowds with little sidelong glances, a little sly, as if we we felt on the fringes of this universe. One day, taking my courage in both hands, I had the audacity to approach him and tell him that I wanted to play for him, that I would learn Spanish for him or that I could play the role of a mute in one of his films…

I like the way Almodóvar knows how to mix the present and the past

tilda swinton

One could imagine that there is no possible bridge between the colorful universe of Almodóvar and mine, which is a pure Scottish woman. But as you know, cinema abolishes borders and creates worlds outside of any geographical reality. At Almodóvar, I feel at home. Working with him was a no-brainer. By dint of looking at his works, I became familiar with his worlds, with the tessitura of his films and the expression of his sensitivity… Moreover, we have common reference points which create between us a cultural intimacy. We love the films of George Cukor, the charm and the irony of Truman Capote or Billy Wilder.”

Tilda Swinton: “At Almodóvar, women always triumph.” Nico Bustos / El Deseo

“A tradition from Hollywood’s Golden Age”

“At Almodóvar, women always triumph and overcome the obstacles of existence. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of his cinema, and it’s no coincidence. He loves women and he loves his actresses, he makes them know and manages to make them believe that they are the best in the world. This trust granted by a director gives wings. For me, making this film was like singing a song to a tune I already know. The big surprise is that I was the interpreter. It was hard to believe.

For me, making this movie was like singing a song to a tune I already know

tilda swinton

I was part of his family. My biggest challenge was succeeding these brilliant women that Pedro introduced us to throughout his filmography. Carmen Maura, Rossy de Palma, Victoria Abril knew how to perpetuate, while modernizing it, the tradition of the golden age of Hollywood, walking in the footsteps of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis. These Almodovarian heroines, unique in Western cinema, are imbued with this heritage. For me, appearing in continuity is an immense, unexpected, exquisite pride.”

“No one abdicates around me”

“Change? It’s inevitable, and it’s pretty much the only certainty you can hold on to in good or bad days. Those tough days are a blessing to fuel our creativity. It’s times like these that art becomes an indispensable companion and a refuge. The Human Voice had been planned for months. And until filming, nothing has been changed in the timing. Going back to the studios, knowing that it was still possible to materialize a project when everything suggested the opposite, was an exhilarating experience. We proved that, even in times of pandemic, we could continue to make films and that it was not necessary to deprive ourselves of what we loved to do.

This shoot was an act of faith and celebration of cinema. I am convinced that the spectators will find their way back to the cinemas. And I don’t see anyone abdicating around me. The films I shoot are all meant to be shown on the big screen and the filmmakers I work with – Wes Anderson, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Joanna Hogg, George Miller or Bong Joon-ho – have no intention of stopping make films for theatres. I am very confident. Let us rely on the grace of God.”

human voice, by Pedro Almodovar. DVD and VOD release March 19.

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Tilda Swinton: “At Almodóvar, I feel at home”


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