A 32-minute queer cowboy melodrama paid for by Yves Saint Laurent, Strange Way of Life is Pedro Almodóvar’s second English-language short and, like The Human Voice before it, feels so listless and underdeveloped that it makes you question why it was ever made in the first place. Is this just Almodóvar’s way to test his abilities as an English-language auteur? Or is he finally making up for the fact that he turned down Brokeback Mountain? Maybe it’s just an advertisement for the fashion label and YSL creative director Anthony Vacarello’s outfits; or, perhaps, it’s a sincere attempt at a serious piece of cinema? Or could it even be some deliberately hokey, ultra-ironic sort of joke? Whatever it is, Strange Way of Life barely feels like a movie.
The hurried-through plot goes something like this: Silva (an incredibly wooden Pedro Pascal) rides into a generic Western town looking for his ex-lover Jake (an incredibly hammy yet compelling Ethan Hawke). Silva’s son killed Jake’s daughter-in-law and now Silva is there to ask for Jake to spare his child in the name of their long-past love for each other. When Jake refuses, however, the drama of the past bubbles to the surface, manifesting itself in a violent denouement that unfolds so briskly that it’s barely believable. But first, they’ve got to do a little bit of gratuitous fucking — they haven’t seen each other for 25 years, and, no matter how tame the whole enterprise is, it’s still an Almodóvar film and he does know how to give the people what they want.
The film’s heart lies in its melodrama and Silva’s attempt to evoke the spark of their repressed romance. Therein also lies the major problem of the film: Hawke and Pascal have such little chemistry that it’s hard to believe they even have any present connection, let alone a loaded past one. It doesn’t help that their campy performance styles feel cribbed from two different movies and that it’s all shot in that overly bright and clean, fluorescent-heavy style of the director’s 21st-century work (almost all of which was lensed by José Luis Alcaine). Strange Way of Life has that static, overly-polished feel which smoothes away any of the expressive transgressive energy that might still remain in favor of a distanced, all-too-clean look. It also, coincidentally, sort of looks like a fashion commercial.
20 years ago, it might have been captivating to watch two very hetero A-listers fawn over and fondle each other, but today, in a post-Brokeback world where it’s become almost a career move — Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Sennott, Timothee Chalamet, etc. — to make that the sole selling factor of the film is almost regressive. Yet by the time the credits abruptly roll around mid-scene, almost like some meta/Godardian joke on film form, it’s hard to find anything else really on in the film, both on its surface and in its vague motions toward depth, besides the simple appeal of watching the sex. In a year where the concept of the auteurist short has really emerged in full-force, seemingly out of nowhere — see also works from Yorgos Lanthimos, Wes Anderson, Pedro Costa, and Lucrecia Martel — and seems to hold the significant promise of rejiggering film standards, it’s frustrating to find something so beguiling in its very existence. But maybe this is overthinking it; Strange Way of Life probably really is just a commercial for YSL.
DIRECTOR: Pedro Almodóvar; CAST: Pedro Pascal, Ethan Hawke, José Condessa, Sara Sálamo; DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures Classics; IN THEATERS: October 6; RUNTIME: 31 min.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2023 — Dispatch 1.