December 2023


Almodóvar Short Films Part 1:
Strange Way of Life

Renate Stendhal

My local arts cinema caught up with Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, showing a double-bill of two half-hour shorts with a coda: an interview with the director. Both films take up cultural icons and twist them in amusing gay and feminist ways. I will start reviewing Almodóvar's gay Western, Strange Way of Life, and next month, follow up with his take on Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice.

Strange Way of Life is Almodóvar's first tackle with the classic American Western. He already had his eye on Brokeback Mountain, the short story by Annie Proulx about two cowboys who fall in love. But he declined and Ang Lee did the job (2005). Now he finally did it and even though thirty minutes are not enough, the result is surprisingly satisfying.

Two middle-aged men, styled to perfection like Western heroes Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster, confront each other in a lover's quarrel. The landscape is the classic moody desert flanked by mountain ranges. A rider with a good Mexican face (Pedro Pascal) approaches an office where the sheriff (Ethan Hawke) has just decided to bring in a  murder suspect. We hear the sounds of a strange Portuguese song in what seems to be a woman's voice. The camera pans to the singer: a young cowboy
(Manu Rios) with dreamy eyes and a woman's pouting lips. He strums his guitar in front of the office, singing in falsetto. The rider gives him a long, appreciative look – and within these few moments we are already solidly in Almodóvar's universe, where things are not what tradition suggests. (The song, "Estranha forma de vida" or "Strange way of life" is the title of a 1959 Fado, sung by Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso and lip-synched by the

The rider, Silva, is greeted by the sheriff, Jake, an Anglo touch tight-jawed and sharp-eyed, and no time is wasted before we know what connects the two—a brief passion from twenty-five years ago. But now they are unlikely bedfellows. Superbly played by Hawke, Jake has turned into a taciturn emblem of "toxic masculinity," suspecting Silva has not come for him but for ulterior motives. The man Jake is going to arrest for murder is Silva's son. The unsuspected twist in this reunion of star-crossed lovers is that Silva, a bear of a man, is at ease with feelings and has no qualms spelling out that he came for love.

The effect of this "masculine-feminine" dichotomy in two equally tough guys is almost comically shocking. It's so unlikely and yet so well done by both actors that one could wonder which version is more absurd: the classical Western devoid of any love or passion between men, or this slightly melodramatic queerness.

The two men sit down to a plate of stew. "Did you cook this yourself?" Silva wants to know. There are more than furtive glances of desire: "Don't look at me like that!" Jake's resistance is the resentment of twenty-five years of silence, but Silva spots the red neckerchief he once gave Jake, which Jake has kept all this time. The film cuts to the prominent quilt-covered bed with Silva standing at its foot, contemplating. Then we follow Jake's stare down Silva's back to his pants bottom.  He moves closer and kisses Silva's neck.

The fast clip of the scenes made me think of turning the pages of a photo -novella -- a staple of Almodóvar's style that is always present like a hilarious and ironic commentary. The next scene shows Silva in bed the next morning, his buttocks now without pants. He gets up and can't find his underpants (have they turned into a trophy like the neckerchief?). Jake shouts from the bathtub to pick one from his drawer where pants and wife -beaters are folded and stacked in perfect "feminine" (or is it OCD?) order. But there is no romantic breakfast. The two can't agree on their desires and split in a huff.

Jake follows Silva's tracks on a long ride to the son's ranch.

At their campfires at night, each man reminisces about their youthful infatuation, and in these flashbacks, their roles are reversed.

Silva's memory shows them as two cowboys (Jason Fernández as Jake and José Condessa as Silva) fooling around with whores. They shoot holes into a wine barrel, and all engage in a frenzy of drinking and kissing the wine off the others' mouths and bodies. It's a marvelous bacchanal in high, vibrant Almodóvar colors. There's a spontaneous greedy tangle between the two men and the women withdraw with a grin: "There's nothing for us to do here!" The scene of drunken lust amid laughter and innocent disbelief is driven on by Jake. It's a marvelous, sexy scene --sensuous, playful, and irresistible. Interestingly, Jake at his camp fire remembers the later closeness of amorous looks and intimate kisses.

The brief story culminates when Silva's son Joe (George Steane) tries to flee, Jake tries to stop him, and Silva tries to stop Jake from arresting or killing his son. Each with a gun pointed – a scene delivered like the Western climax par excellence.

It's the sheriff who goes down – shot by his lover, while the son gets away. But it's not the end. In another slyly comical twist, wounded Jake is now in the hands of Silva who nurses him, oblivious to Silva's rage, and keeps talking about his dream: two men, lovers, living together on a ranch, helping and protecting each other.  Jake won't hear of it.  He turns his face to the window with shades of scorn and longing in his eyes.

In the final shot the camera follows Jake's look through the window outside, and while the credits roll, we see five beautiful horses playing in a paddock in the deepening dusk – running, rearing, chasing, teasing, bucking – a scene as innocent and irresistible as the bacchanale of the past.

In the interview that closes the two shorts, Almodóvar explains why he didn't film Brokeback Mountain. He thought he couldn't render the story with enough sensuality in Hollywood. He repeatedly mentions his interest in cowboy stories directed by women, especially Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog (2021). His final scene with the horses looked to me like an homage to Campion. In her story of repressed homosexuality the two men living unhappily on a ranch are brothers. Her way of filming the animals, cows and horses, is packed with the erotic sensuality the men can only dream of.

At the end, the interviewer asks Almodóvar how his story would continue if he extended it to a full-length feature. There would be another meeting, another threesome at gunpoint, he says, but this time Silva would favor his old lover and shoot his outlaw son. It would be no good, however. Jake would again refuse to commit. As long as it's impossible to imagine queer life, a gay couple in the Wild West, it sure is a strange way of life.


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Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. ( is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2023 Renate Stendhal
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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