During this year’s LFF, the BFI screened two Tilda Swinton films that felt eons apart but unexpectedly became two of the most interesting entries of the slate. There were Friendship’s Death and The Human Voice, both of which I instantly became fascinated with in equal measure. The films are a testament to the creativity of their directors and a study on Swinton’s masterful handling of characters.
Swinton’s career as a polymath and performer has spanned four decades, not least being her standout performance in Luca Guadanigno’s 2018 reimagining of Argento’s Suspiria. In recent years, Swinton has been known as something of an iconoclast, challenging many institutionalised ideas (not unlike David Byrne, whose American Utopia also screened at NYFF and LFF and will be available to stream on HBO Max). Her affinity to David Bowie was well remarked and she was rumoured to be lined up to play him in a biopic. Swinton is irrefutably a driving force in many films and, though she’s now a household name, it’s intriguing to see her gravitate towards material that helped her launch her career many years ago.
The Human Voice is Swinton’s much-anticipated collaboration with Pedro Almodóvar, a reenactment of Jean Cocteau’s single-actor play. Colourful, vibrant, and extremely kitsch, it’s got all of the hallmarks of an Almodóvar production. It was screened at both NYFF and internationally to rapturous reviews.
To some viewers, it might feel a million miles away from Friendship’s Death, a screenplay penned by the late, great film theorist Peter Wollen. In this story, a cyborg named Friendship is sent to Earth from the extra-terrestrial galaxy of Proscion. Initially meant to land at MIT in the States, she accidentally takes a detour and lands in Amman, Jordan during the 1970 Black September war. An English journalist (Bill Paterson) takes her in and the two spend a few days together, talking about life, mortality, and humankind.
Both The Human Voice and Friendship’s Death deal with existential themes: morbidity, separation, love, sex, destruction, and humanity. They are fascinating bookends (or rather, bookmarks, as I’m sure she’s not finished yet) to Swinton’s illustrious career, from a young woman of 27 in Friendship’s Death, forward 33 years to the present day.
On the one hand, we have Friendship’s Death. This film is more self-conscious about bringing in a non-human to forensically examine the race: its central character is named after humanity’s ‘greatest mission,’ platonic or otherwise. Its gorgeous costume design and intimate setting belies universal themes which become topics of conversation. The exchanges between Sullivan (Paterson) and Friendship (Swinton) are endearingly witty. This humanoid is well aware that she’s programmed to understand the sensations, pleasures, and pains of the human race, but with a level of critical distance not afforded to Sullivan. I like to think of it working on two levels: a narrative about extraterrestrial beings, and a study in performance.
It would feel like rambling given the description, but in fact, Friendship’s Death is very funny and equally fascinating. Wollen’s only solo feature finds a way to make light of themes that could otherwise seem overbearing. Lines of dialogue play on a loop in my head: “My presence here is meant to be reassuring” / “Reassuring?! I find you anxiety-inducing!” – and “I’m a human, a woman, as long as I’m disbelieved.” I found that the characters have remained with me a few days after watching and the discussion of humans’ unique capacity to show ‘sincere’ emotions was very well considered.
From the examiner, Swinton becomes the examined in The Human Voice. On the surface, it’s the account of an unnamed woman descending into hysteria as her ex-lover leaves. The movie is also an exploration of the human condition and about the things that drive us. Swinton plays the central character, an Englishwoman living in Spain. The first shots show us two things: A) Almodóvar’s commitment to block colours and B) that Swinton’s character is unhinged. We see her buying a selection of weapons, including an immaculately-wrapped hammer at a general store. She’s clearly plotting something drastic and over the course of the 30-minute play/film, she gradually lets the unknown viewer (via close-ups and long takes) enter the depths of her mind.
For its stage origins, The Human Voice is acutely modern. Swinton’s character uses branded objects -a Krups coffee machine, a Smeg fridge, a Samsung phone, earbuds-, commodifying her character. It’s a film that deals with the pain of separation, as the character is waiting all day for a call from a recent ex-lover.
These modern marks posit the film unavoidably in the present day, so much so that it couldn’t be read as an allegory for any other period in history. She speaks on the phone, knowing that she is totally alone, and due comparisons to the present lockdown situation have been widely remarked. It’s timely that Almodóvar has presented us with a feature that’s all about the inner world and our own demons. The perils, if you like, of being left alone for too long.
The character experiences, in real-time, the euphoric highs and devastating lows that the robot Friendship could only speculate and theorise about. Cocteau’s theoretical woman is vocal about her rapid-cycling moods but it seems that to fully understand the full spectrum of emotions, you have to be on both sides: cyborg/human, narrator/performer.
What I think Swinton brings to both of these roles is a sense of poise and understanding. While she’s not transcendent – she is, after all, human – in both roles, she exhibits knowledge and gravity as if her characters always knew the outcome of each scenario and is bracing for the inevitable. In Friendship’s Death, it’s intriguing to see her character acting so collected when bombs and missiles sound off outside the hotel doors, or so composed when calmly explaining to her ex-lover her deep reflections on the futility of life in The Human Voice. Almodovar and Wollen might both be considered polar-opposite auteurs, but their themes are universal.
On the issue of genre, the two films are at odds. Friendship’s Death is firmly embedded as sci-fi (not unlike Xanadu or The Fifth Element, both of which I’m reserved about for various reasons), only more intellectual and political. The Human Voice, on the other hand, is based on a play initially written in 1930, which has sparked various reimaginings -including an opera, La Voix Humane in 1958-. Stylistically and formally, these two pieces are very different, but there is some crossover in that the central premise of each involves the ‘algebra’ of human relationships.
In such a busy world, and a time where everything happens instantly, programmers don’t often make time for long ruminations on humankind. These two films are exceptions worth noting. While both films were created years apart, they delve into a lot of the same themes and show Swinton’s characteristic and deeply enigmatic performances. They say a lot about their creators and the times in which they were made, but though both relate to specific scenarios, they’re also universal. A pair that deserve to be watched together, I can’t recommend Friendship’s Death or The Human Voice enough.
Friendship’s Death has been remastered and will be released in 2021. The LFF Screen Talk with Tilda Swinton and Bill Paterson, Reflections on Friendship’s Death, and reflections on Peter Wollen’s writing, politics, and legacy are both available on Youtube.