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Swan Song

Director – Todd Stephens – 2021 – US – Cert. – 105m

***1/2

Tasked with creating an open casket hairdo for his deceased, former best client, a hairdresser worn down by care home institutionalism escapes to reinvent himself – out in cinemas on Friday, June 10th

A glamourous star on a stage playing to an audience of empty chairs, Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) wakes up to the boring reality that he’s living on social security checks and wearing an old T-shirt and sweat pants in a care home in his small town of Sandusky, Ohio.

Still, he takes his pleasures where he can find them: stealing napkins from the dining room and obsessively folding them into squares a quarter of their original size, smoking ladies’ More brand cigars. The latter he lights two at once after turning the wheelchair of Gertie (Annie Kitral) – left out in the corridor – to face the window before giving her the second cigar, something in which she clearly takes pleasure despite near total paralysis.

Otherwise, though, he battles with his nurse Shaundell (Roshon Thomas) over adjusting his armchair cushion and, worse, smoking, a pleasure she forbids. He swallows a cigar to conceal the activity; she finds out and confiscates his stash.

He receives a visit from Mr. Shanrock (Tom Bloom), the attorney of Republican socialite Rita Parker Sloan who, Shanrock informs Pat, has just died. And in her will, she specifies that her former hair stylist Mr. Pat is to do her hair for the funeral’s open casket. With a $25 000 fee attached. After turning Shanrock down, Pat has a change of heart and leaves the care home to buy supplies to fulfil the commission.

What follows is a road movie with town standing in for road as Pat makes his way across it, finding out that the only store selling hair supplies is that of his former assistant Dee Dee Dale who opened a rival shop across the road from his and ruined him by luring away Rita, his best customer.

He visits the home and lovingly curated garden which he and his beloved David (Eric Eisenbrey) shared, which he lost to a nephew when David failed to make a will, only to find it has been reduced to a nondescript area of flat grass. He meets Rita’s nephew Dustin (Michael Urie), who seems to know all about him.

He hangs around a clothes shop where the owner Sue (Stephanie McVey) turns out to be the woman who visited him for a one-off blonde treatment but never came back because her husband hated it and gives him a complete makeover with a green trouser suit that she’s been saving for the right customer. She isn’t worried that he can’t pay.

He hangs out in the gay bar where he used to stage a weekly drag act and none of the young clientele or barman Gabriel (Thom Hilton) are familiar, a venue that’s about to have its closing night celebration before being shut down after some 41 years.

And, eventually, he takes the plunge and visits Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge), trying to sneak in when she’s out and steal the Vivante hairdressing product he can’t purloin anywhere else (and which, she informs him, they no longer make). But she returns and attempts to extract payment, eventually letting him have it for free. He also reconnects with departed friends in the form of their ghosts: fellow gay man Eunice (Ira Hawkins) and Rita herself (Linda Evans). And he learns that nephew Dustin was gay and inspired by his aunt’s stories of Mr. Pat after Dustin came out to her.

Pat Pitsenbarger was a real life person who inspired director Stephens. So much so that he was penned as the mentor to the central character in Stephens’ earlier script Edge Of Seventeen (David Moreton, 1998) about coping with growing up gay in Sandusky, Ohio. The character got cut part-way through the shoot, but has clearly been floating around Stephens’ consciousness ever since, finally turning up as the driving force of the Swan Song script.

Initially Pat is someone who has seen better days and upon whom the world has closed in. He is stifled by the care home and the regulations enforced by its employees prove a constant source of frustration, even though nurse Shaundell tries hard to look out for what she sees as Pat’s best interests.

His simple clothes are utilitarian and don’t really say anything about him. He doesn’t fit in with most of the other residents. His napkin folding is a diversionary tactic to try and remain sane, but his room is filling up with the things and when she discovers and confiscates his cigars it morphs into a mass of discarded paper as he turns its contents upside down in search of more cigars. Only with the paralysed Gertie, to whom he manages to bring a little pleasure of which the regulated environment of the institution seems incapable, does he seem to be fulfilled in any way.

The task of fixing the late Rita’s hair forces him out of this institutionalised funk, sending him on a quest for the products he needs to do her hair justice. In each of his serial encounters with various people – those in the orbit of the deceased Rita, shop owners including a former employee and a former client, reimagined friends in his head who’ve passed on – he seems to recover a little bit more of his former self, with Sue’s gift of the trouser suit a major turning point.

Even in the largely slovenly state in which Pat is first glimpsed, there’s something about Udo Kier which says Pat is not like this, and encounter by encounter Kier slowly builds on this with the effect that he slowly returns the character to his former, foppish glory as Mr. Pat. It’s a long and slow build, but a joy to watch. Kier is familiar from so many movies, yet his presence here is a revelation. The role wasn’t written for him, yet it turns out to be a perfect fit. Try and imagine another actor in the role and… well, you can’t. The director has a vision of what he wants, even though it feels a little overlong in places, and there are lots of great bit-parts scattered throughout. Ultimately, however, the film is Udo Kier’s, and he’s the reason to see it.

Swan Song is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, June 10th.

Trailer:

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