A woman on the verge of suicide

‘The Human Voice’ directed by Pedro Almodovar (Spain 2020) shown at the London Film Festival 2020 and due for UK wide release on 7th November

Review by Khalid Ali, Film and Media Correspondent

The Human Voice Poster
Poster – The Human Voice

‘The Human Voice’ takes back esteemed Spanish Film auteur, Pedro Almodovar to the narratives he cherishes the most; stories of embittered women and the men who don’t deserve them. Throughout Almodovar cinematic oeuvre, he portrayed various forms of trauma endured by women perpetuated by men; ‘Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ (1988), ‘All about my mother’ (1999) and ‘Volver’ (2006) are notable examples. Once again the adverse impact on a woman’s psyche, following rejection by and separation from her male partner is the focus here. Inspired by the French poet Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name, the film condenses a roller coaster of emotions in 30 minutes of visual flair and suspense hinting at a tragic ending. At its core, the film explores depression as a precursor to suicide, a public health problem in Spain that has recently been referred to as ‘the silent pandemic’ by the president of the Spanish Mental Health Confederation, Nel Anxelu González Zapico. A marked increase in mortality by suicide in Spanish women in the period from 2010-2016 has been reported while the suicide rates in men remained stable.

Tilda Swinton is the unnamed woman preoccupied by suicidal thoughts after Jose, her lover of four years unilaterally decides to terminate their relationship. Pleading with Jose over heated phone conversations, she wants to meet him for one final time. A bleak future of loneliness compels her to consider responding to the beckoning call of ‘sweet death’. Growing old and losing interest in her career as a theatre actress fuel her desire to self-harm and execute other acts of violence and destruction.  Her overwhelming anger and frustration have to be acted out in a physical manner no matter what the consequences are.

The ‘Interpersonal theory of suicide’ provides some explanation for the character suicidal intentions. This theory postulates that ‘’suicidal desire emerges when individuals experience intractable feelings of perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness and that near-lethal or lethal suicidal behaviour occurs in the presence of suicidal desire and capability for suicide.’’ The protagonist firmly believes that she has become a ‘burden’ to her lover and that he is justified in his decision to abandon her because she initially agreed to ‘play the game according to his rules’. As a mad, melancholic woman, she is totally ‘expendable’.

Film trailer – The Human Voice (2020)

Reker, Peacock and Wong defined the personal meaning in life as ‘’the cognizance of order, coherence and purpose in one’s existence, the pursuit and attainment of worthwhile goals, and an accompanying sense of fulfilment.’’ The suicidal woman embodies the total opposite of that statement by believing that her existence is purposeless, she has no more worthy goals to pursue and nothing is likely to bring satisfaction or fulfillment into her world. She does not even belong in her colourful flat and her privileged lifestyle is unjustified. Emotional neglect and abandonment made her lose the ‘meaning in life’.

Tilda Swinton in The Human Voice- 19.10.20
Tilda Swinton as the lonely jilted woman contemplating suicide –The Human Voice

Women’s camaraderie has always been a prominent motif in Almodovar films; women’s ability to gain each other’s trust and friendship by supporting their own kin during difficult times is a protective feature against despair providing much-needed element resilience in the face of adversity. In ‘The Human Voice’ the aggrieved woman lacks that glimmer of hope; her ‘voice’ is the only source of consolation as we never get to hear what Jose is saying over the phone, and that voice is telling her that ‘she could end it all’.

Can a fresh start be realised? Can a meaning in life be rediscovered? Can a suicidal attempt remain an attempt for a lonely human voice? To answer those questions, I would urge you to watch and reflect on what might be the final precious moments of a woman on the verge of suicide.

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