We’re at SXSW… kind of! The event is taking place virtually this year so while we’re all watching movies online we’re still bringing you coverage of the best film festival of the year. Check out all of our SXSW 2021 coverage.
Once legendary hairdresser and stylist Patrick Pitsenberger (Udo Kier) is now retired in a care home. He lives largely in denial about his life, until his former best friends and old client, Rita Parker Sloane, leaves an unusual condition in her will. She stipulates that Patrick should arrange her hair and makeup in the event of her funeral.
A slow, thoughtfully-observed film, Swan Song is a unique and unexpected feature. Todd Stephens’ film features Bacrau star Udo Kier in the leading role and Jennifer Coolidge as his rival Dee Dee, enduring a rivalry that has been kept alive over the years. A friendly reminder of the interactions we’ve missed for over a year, Swan Song is an elegy to youth and lives that have already been lived.
Director: Todd Stephens
Release date: March 18, 2021 (SXSW)
Rating: Not yet rated
Patrick is deeply sceptical of the proposition to style his recently deceased friend, especially after the insensitive way it’s handled by a local lawyer. But, after some time mulling it over at the care home and reflecting on his lost youth, Patrick runs away. On his journey through Cleveland, Ohio, Patrick runs into strangely warm, welcoming locals. He shares his story with a woman with whom he hitchhikes. He reveals he had a lover named David who died of AIDS many years ago, whom he’s never got over.
But, he rediscovers himself on the road after checking into a hair salon looking for beauty products for his client. He has a completely innocuous interaction while dancing with some children on the street. You fear the worst, but he just hangs around for a moment to feel like a young person again. The soundtrack is full of ballads, regretful and languorous, but echoes a probably fabulous youth he would have enjoyed. He begins to hallucinate and hear things: there’s a repeated call of ‘Hey, Mr.!’ which seems to be the echo of the voice of his partner David. Patrick is probably wishing to recreate the life he once had and to bring back people who are no longer with him.
Along the way, Patrick returns to the site of his old home, which his partner David built entirely from scratch, to find that it has been torn down as it was in a state of disrepair. He inherited nothing from David after his death: without a will, everything went to David’s nephew. This is a really tragic part of the story, because it indicates what he held most dear, and the difficulty of facing the pain of losing someone and everything you have to remember them by.
Despite his shabby and worn appearance, Patrick is still fabulous. He sits with a glass of wine, pink hat, flower on his lapel, and a visibly stained shirt and tracksuit bottoms. There is a hilariously understated cat-fight between aging rival hairdressers past their prime, and their rivalry would have been explosive if they were both 20 years younger. The dialogue can be a bit slow but the tension of old relationships is definitely felt.
Udo Kier’s facial expressions are just so fabulous throughout. He’s an absolute diva around everyone he meets, completing his ensemble in a local thrift store where he runs into an old client. He even remembers her name after many years. He has a wonderful personality: he is a people person and can remember even small details about her. The encounters he has are absurd, but he is effortlessly charming on his little odyssey of self-discovery.
He ends up at the home of his recently-passed client’s grandson, and his entrance is characteristically so flamboyant. It must be painful for him to think that he had lost out on such a life of glamour and luxury. He is a bit of a tragic figure now though, relapsing back into alcohol when he’s triggered by events of the past. Running into an old friend, it’s a warm greeting: “I had no idea you were still alive!” “Don’t overdo it,” “I always do.” The film raises questions about legacy and who’s there to remember us when we’re gone – it certainly gives food for thought, dealing as it does with issues of childlessness and regret.
But it’s also a film about second chances: Patrick has the chance to go to a club, style the hair of a leading drag queen, and have a legendary night out. It’s the last performance before the club closes, so it’s both Patrick’s swan song and that of the club. So wild is his night, he actually ends up in hospital, but leaves parting words with an unforgettable exit: “I’m late for my funeral.” He rides a motor-scooter down the highway, and like everything in this film, it feels like a bedazzled, glittery rite of passage.
His best friend, it appears, didn’t attend the funeral of his friend, David. This is the reason for much of his misgivings and reluctance to help her in her own time of need. Yet Patrick eventually learns to forgive old grudges and still styles her hair for her burial. The tone of this film is really ambiguous, shifting between bright and colourful to melancholy and reflective, the soundtrack playing a big part in this. For the most part, it gives Patrick a triumphant air and that’s exactly the kind of dignity his character should be remembered for.
Not to be confused with the film of the same name with Awkwafina and Mahershala Ali, also scheduled for release this year, Swan Song is an elegy to what we’ve lost. The film starts and ends with Patrick on an imaginary stage, hearing voices, doing an encore performance for invisible fans, a performance of his life. For me, it lacked a little clarity at times, and some of the pacing felt uneven. But I could look past its flaws and enjoy the story. Swan Song turns out to be a melancholy film in the end, but one gets the impression that Patrick had a fabulous, flamboyant and important life, leaving an impact on others, known and unknown.