In Swan Song, Udo Kier’s image alone is too divine for words. As the “Liberace of Sandusky”, Kier stars as Pat Pitsenberger, a once flamboyant hairdresser now silently stowed away in a depressing cinderblock nursing home. He coasts by in his sweatpants, hiding cigarettes and living as the vaguest shadow of his brightest self. At the chance to style the hair for one of his wealthiest former clients, Pat sneaks off for an odyssey through the town, reclaiming pieces of himself along the way and nursing the grudges that came with the end of his salon. By the time he dons a mint pantsuit and chandelier on his head, we feel Kier’s Pat coming into an exalting reemergence, the complete vision we’ve been told he once was. Except, sadly, the film around him can reveal to us much more about him.
Writer/director Todd Stephens aims to make a humble and touching film like his early efforts with Gypsy 83 and his script for the gay classic Edge of Seventeen. Swan Song is his first film in many years after launching the Another Gay Movie cult franchise, and it finds him with a sparkling initial concept and unsteady follow-through. Here his heart is certainly in the right place, but he delivers a film you root for to succeed in ways it only half achieves.
The film presents small town queer life with reverie, presenting the communal bonds within it as passionately alive while drawing its last breaths. It crackles with dishy humor, often hightened by Kier’s trademark deadpan, giving us the kind of broad humor that feels in short supply in modern gay cinema. But the briefly seen characters, whether found in the one remaining gay bar or elsewhere throughout Pat’s trek, become more known to us than Pat himself. Still reduced to an oddball even among his gay brethren, the film can’t avoid treating him with quaint remove, handling him with “isn’t he cute” gloves that only underline the film’s unsatisfying lack of dimension. This isn’t helped by Kier’s existing screen persona as an eccentric, something the film tries to twist in an interesting way that ultimately has the opposite effect. Even though the film is openly affectionate for him, Pat still feels othered in the way that Stephens observes him.
The best thing that can be said for Swan Song is that it casts Udo Kier and Jennifer Coolidge as rivals born out of a mentor-pupil relationship, a high camp scenario that could fuel a million movies (and we would watch every single one). Their chemistry is where the film finally hits its stride in finding a tone somewhere between the sweet and the soberly hardened. Along with Coolidge, the rest of the film’s ensemble brings understated warmth to small roles, from Michael Urie to Thom Hilton as a young gay bartender.
Happy to capture a tone that is merely lovely (and achieve it, it does and maintains it admirably), the film presents Pat’s circumstance without much exploration below the surface. It makes for a film that is sad, if not moving; compassionate to Pat’s isolation, if overgeneralized and passive to the systems that have caused it. At its best, Swan Song has a loose and matter-of-fact relationship to fantasy and memory, with its more florid moments lending the most effort to place us in Pat’s psyche. Somewhere inside Swan Song is a tender and angry reflection on elder care in communities with dwindling queer footholds, but its soft impact is only a natural result when the film only ever goes so deep.