“Pedro! Pedro!” shouted the Cannes crowd before Pedro Almodóvar unveiled his latest film, “Strange Way of Life,” a 31-minute Western starring Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke as cowboys and former lovers.
There's nothing quite like the fervor that greets a new film from Almodóvar, one of the world’s most beloved filmmakers. But that may have been doubly so for “Strange Way of Life” even though it’s a quarter the length of his usual output. So frenzied was the scene that many ticketholders never got in.
When Almodóvar introduced his all-male cast on stage at the film's Cannes Film Festival premiere, some in the audience had to cool themselves. John C. Reilly, president of this year's Un Certain regard jury, kindly reached across the aisle with his hat to fan one excited moviegoer.
“I was not sure that I’d make a Western in my life but at least I made a short,” Almodóvar said smiling the next day in an interview on a hotel terrace overlooking the Croisette.
The 73-year-old Spanish auteur has been edging closer to working in English. He's done it now in two shorts — “The Human Voice,” with Tilda Swinton, and “Strange Way of Life," sponsored by Saint Laurent — and is preparing to make his first English-language feature after abandoning “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” a film he had prepared to make with Cate Blanchett.
“Strange Way of Life” again suggests Almodóvar works just as effortlessly in English as he does in Spanish. Pascal (who had to miss the film's premiere) and Hawke play a pair of former gunslingers who meet up 25 years years after a torrid affair. They briefly rekindle their love for another, but one's stubborn insistence that a life together is an impossibility leads to a violent climax.
Almodóvar, a deeply knowledgeable film buff who has consciously worked in melodrama, noir and screwball genres before, discovered his love of Westerns in his early 20s. He lists John Sturges, Henry Hathaway, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks among his favorites. “John Ford is unlimited,” he says.
But the genre goes even deeper than that for Almodóvar. He remembers his father trying to teach him as a boy how to ride a horse. ("And I was so afraid that he couldn’t," he says.)
“The Western was born at the beginning of the century with cinema. What Hollywood did was create the American epic and also stylize their reality,” says Almodóvar, speaking alongside Hawke. “But their reality was very dusty and very ugly. It was not glamorous. They created a style which was completely American and also a completely male genre. I thought that if there were that many men, some of them could desire each other.”
Almodóvar has come closer before. In the early ‘90s, he sought the rights to adapt Tom Spanbauer’s “The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon,” but says a Western with gay cowboys and Native Americans was a tough sell. Almodóvar also turned down “Brokeback Mountain,” which Ang Lee made in 2005. He wanted to make a more full-fledged Western, with gunfights. Just with holsters slung over the bed post.
“For me, ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ they have the hats, the iconography of the Western. But they were sheepherders. They were not cowboys. They were not hired killers” says Almodóvar. “The past of (my characters), for me, they were part of a gang like ‘The Wild Bunch’ of Sam Peckinpah. And they have an affair.”
“Strange Way of Life,” which Sony Pictures Classics will release later this year, was shot on some hallowed Western ground, in Almeria, Spain, where Sergio Leone made some of his classic spaghetti Westerns.
“You feel yourself a part of the legend of cinema history,” says Hawke. “To be in Spain, with Pedro, making an American Western, it was very meta.”
And it's delightful to see Almodóvar at work in a new genre, yet just as at home, filling the frame with pops of color (Pascal's character wears a lime green jacket) and flourishes of emotion. To him, much of Hollywood history can be reexamined through a queer lens with a little imagination.
“There is some vast territory to explore because they didn’t explore it before," says Almodóvar. "I sometimes make an exercise — it’s not an obsession —where I change the sexuality of the main character. It could be that and be the same movie in noirs and thrillers.”
The 1949 James Cagney gangster film “White Heat," for instance, Almodóvar says, would be just the same if Edmund O'Brien's undercover inmate was gay.
But whatever the genre, “Strange Way of Life” extends yet another vibrant chapter in Almodóvar's filmography, now in its fifth decade, following the exquisitely autobiographical “Pain and Glory” (2019) and the 2021 politically tinged hidden-past drama “Parallel Lives.”
“Every movie is an adventure and this is part of the addiction,” Almodóvar says. “The uncertainty is the word that defines it. Even though I’ve made 22 movies and two shorts, I don't feel like I know I how to do this. Because every movie is different.”