Swan Song


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Swan Song
"Swan Song is, like many such airs, a little too slow and indulgent for its own good, sometimes meandering and losing its way, but Kier’s magnetic performance, which won him Best Actor Awards in Dublin and Monte Carlo, holds it all together."

“Udo Kier as you’ve never seen him before!” goes a quote in this film’s trailer, which is possibly true if you’re under 30 and only watch what’s fresh in at the box office. The rest of us remember a suite of queer or camp roles in the likes of Blood For Dracula and My Own Private Idaho, all delivered with confidence and authority. Critics addressing Swan Song also seem concerned that this is the first leading role Keir has had for a while, as if he were in danger of being forgotten, when it’s pretty clear that he’s an actor who chooses roles not in pursuit of top billing but rather because he is interested in the characters. The point is not to be the lead, but to be the most memorable ingredient in the mix.

In this film, memory is really all that his character, Pat Pitsenbarger (based on a real person much loved in Sundusky, Ohio) has. He’s isolated in a nursing home with no visitors and no source of stimulating conversation, still grieving for his life partner, who died as a result of AIDS. He has no reason for seeking to re-engage with life until, out of the blue, a lawyer appears to tell him that a wealthy former client of his, Rita Parker Sloan (played by Linda Evans of Dynasty fame) has died, and that she requested in her will that he come out of retirement to style her hair for the funeral. There’s a hefty paycheque involved, but what really seems to motivate Pat to escape from his carers, hitchhike into town (with a sign offering ‘free beauty tips’) and take on the job is more of a mixture of curiosity and spite.

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Returning to the world after a lengthy absence is like travelling in time. Swan Song isn’t simply a nostalgia-fest but an observation of the new from a different – not necessarily disapproving – perspective. Almost everyone Pat meets on his journey is nice to him, if a little disconcerted, and despite having no money he is gradually able to acquire sufficient kit to do his job, by way of charm or simply refusing to go away without it. Though he’s sad to learn of the disappearance of a favourite beauty brand, he comes to life amongst the staff in a Black hair salon where his supply shop used to be. Shared passions spark friendship, although some of his most interesting interactions involve a former rival (Jennifer Coolidge, on excellent form), who may not like him but understands him like nobody else left alive.

Watching a gay couple play with their kids in a public park, learning that the bar where he used to perform is about to be closed down, Pat struggles with what it means to be a gay man in a changed world. Increasing public acceptance has reduced the sense of community, and all the rules are different. At the film’s emotional high point, he delivers a gloriously camp performance onstage, but he’s daunted by the fact that the stage now seems to be the only place where camp is understood. His ordinary means of expression are now seen as at best quaint and old fashioned, at worst offensive. People (not least some of this film’s critics) no longer understand what camp was for.

An obsession with style, a fierce intelligence and a razor wit, illustrated by some splendidly barbed lines, have enabled Pat to survive in a world which would otherwise have offered him no quarter. Day to day performance has been his shield, making people laugh and smile and feel indulgent so that they don’t ostracise or beat him, but it is perhaps only now, in this changed world, that he begins to fully understand the cost. The revelation of where he really stood with Rita, whom he thought of as a friend and confidante, will be the most painful to bear, but if there’s one thing Pat has learned in life, it’s how to use his talents to fight back.

Swan Song is, like many such airs, a little too slow and indulgent for its own good, sometimes meandering and losing its way, but Kier’s magnetic performance, which won him Best Actor Awards in Dublin and Monte Carlo, holds it all together. Crucially, he delivers his lines straight and with his customary gravity, emphasising that Pat’s way of being is real to him and not to be trifled with. He makes visible the tremendous strength that it takes to survive by passing oneself off as weak, by letting one’s deepest emotions be perceived as trivial. Rather than a sob story or request for pity, this film is a celebration of that strength, and an important effort to bridge the gap between the LGBTQ+ cultures of today and of the past.

Reviewed on: 29 Aug 2022
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Swan Song packshot
An aging hairdresser escapes his nursing home and embarks on an odyssey across his small town to style a dead woman’s hair for her funeral.
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Director: Todd Stephens

Writer: Todd Stephens

Starring: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie, Ira Hawkins, Stephanie McVay

Year: 2021

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US


SXSW 2021

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