Strange Way of Life: Almodovar’s Western about Erotic Love in the Wild West

Almodovar’s Gay Western, Starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal

Cannes Film Festival–As of Day 3, the hottest ticket at this year’s Cannes Festival, which celebrates its 76th edition, was not the opening night, Jeanne de Barry, a costume period piece, starring the ever-controversial Johnny Depp.

No, the toughest ticket was for Almodovar’s short film, a gay western, titled The Strange Way if Life.  There were only two screening for this short, which runs all but 31 minutes, with the legendary director giving very few interviews during the two brief days he was in town.

Almodovar has been a regular presence at Cannes since 1999, when All Abut My Mother (his undisputed masterpiece) earned him the best Director kudo. In 2004, his personal feature, Bad Education was chosen as opening night.  And in 2017, he served as president of the grand jury, which awarded the Palme d’Or to The Square, directed by Ruben Östlund (who is himself the jury president this year).

“I wanted to make a classic Western where I talk about the desire between two cowboys,” offered writer-director Almodóvar during a post-screening Q&A.

One of the more intriguing selections at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was a short, a 31-minute gay Western from the beloved Spanish auteur, known for breaking taboos and dealing with bold and controversial material.

Presented by the famous French fashion house, Saint Laurent, the featurette stars two hot actors: Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal.

Almodóvar was pleased to see a capacity crowd seated inside the Théâtre Claude Debussy on a rain-soaked Wednesday afternoon to take in his Strange Way of Life.

“This is the best place to be in the world now, at least for me,” Almodovar said during brief remarks ahead of the screening. “You are the first audience that is going to see my new movie. You will be the first reaction. We are nervous and very excited at the same time.”

Almodóvar’s emotions are understandable considering he’s a Cannes legend who served as president of the jury  in addition to debuting so many of his works at the Palais. “What more can I say?” he continued before motioning to the cast assembled next to him at center stage, including Hawke, George Steane, Jason Fernández, José Condessa and Manuel Rios.

“These are all beautiful men that I’ve spent time with…but they are also very good actors.” He then thanked them for trusting him, with unusual narrative, which made production “very easy” for him.

The Strange Way of Life opens with Pedro Pascal’s Silva riding a horse across the desert to visit an old friend Jake (played by Hawke) who now works as the country sheriff.

We learn that they haven’t seen each another in 25 years, ever since a “forbidden” lovestruck, a two-month escapade in Mexico.

Upon reuniting, they share a home-cooked meal followed by an “orgiastic” night. However, the next morning ulterior motives are revealed, pushing them toward a dangerous duel.

“I wanted to make a classic Western where I talk about the desire between two cowboys,” offered Almodóvar during the post-screening Q&A, which was billed by the fest “Rendezvous Avec” (Date/Meeting With).

The First Genuine Queer Western

Almodovar shared his take on recent entries in the genre from filmmakers like Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), Chloé Zhao (The Rider) and, of course, Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), though he said that he perceives his short as “the first really queer Western.”

Almodovar got big laughs when he said that Campion’s film (which was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning the Best Director Award) is ambivalent about the sexuality of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, and “to put it bluntly, they didn’t fuck”

The Strange Way of Life doesn’t show its leads engaging in explicit sexual intercourse, either. In one tender, subtly directed moment, Hawke kisses Pascal’s neck. The camera then cuts to the next morning, revealing the aftermath of their night of passion with Pascal lying, face down on the bed to reveal his bare butt.

(Almodovar is the subject of my latest book)

Gay Directors. By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press)

“My movies have had many scenes of explicit sex (Law of Desire, Matador) but as time goes by, I want to show the nature of desire and the quality of pleasure in another way,” noted Almodóvar.

Photo: “Law of Desire”

One member of the team was noticeably absent from the premiere, Pedro Pascal, who reportedly could not make it due to shooting commitments on Ridley Scott’s upcoming sequel to his 2000 Oscar winner, Gladiator.

But Pascal’s name came up several times during the Q&A. Toward the end of the session, Hawke offered up the highest compliments to his co-star when asked about what it was like to play lovers with the leading man of the highly popular TV series, Last of Us.

“I like to be desired, to be wanted. I really don’t care by whom. If it happens to be a very attractive, extremely talented man, like Pedro, all the better,” said Hawke.

Hawke lenjoyed exploring his character. “What I loved about the sheriff Jake, is, that like other men, there’s a way that we are and there’s a way we want to be, and they’re often not the same. It creates a conflict whether you’re straight or whether you’re gay. There are ways that we wish we were, and we often go through our lives pretending to be that way and it creates cracks in us and it creates lies in us. For me, the process of maturing is having less of those cracks and less of those lies. And I felt Jake was a great character because of that.”

Hawke also elaborated on the complex concept of love, which he believes is sewn into every performance. “The second you take out a camera and you start photographing people, there’s some act of love that is happening where you are saying that these people are important and worthy of time. And the things they’re feeling are important, and the things they’re thinking are important, and thus worthy of us all to consider. So, for me, it’s kind of always about love in some capacity. What moves us is what we want, what we love. Desire makes the world spin around.

The Strange Way of Life team stayed in Cannes a bit more on Wednesday following the screening. They made a splash on the Palais red carpet in the evening before tthe premiere of the Japanese film, Monster.

Almodóvar, Hawke, Steane, Condessa, Fernandez and Rios were all decked out in Saint Laurent and accompanied by the house’s creative director Anthony Vaccarello, their creative collaborator, who also served as the film’s costume designer.

Initial responses to the short were positive, with some critics praising the film as being compact, precise, and honest.

The film’s final lines are memorable: “This is what two men living on a ranch together could do for each other.”

It’s a touching affirmation of the possibility of male desire and queer love in the least likely place–the Wild Wild West.