Udo Kier is the kind of actor who defies notions of great screen acting as chameleonic or transformative: you don’t cast him in a role, you cast the role as Udo Kier, and let his curious, transfixing presence do the rest. Over a globe-trotting, seven-decade career that has cheerfully run the grindhouse-to-arthouse gamut, the German star’s million-yard gaze — through distinctively double-glazed, powder-blue eyes — has left a lingering impression in any number of films that have not, and helped a handful of great ones haunt us a little deeper. You wouldn’t remember the OG Suspiria, or My Own Private Idaho, or Bacurau, or an assortment of Lars von Trier nightmares quite the same way without that uncanny, unflappable stare — a sort of Cheshire cat smile for the cinema, though just as liable to be a murderous scowl.
A little of Kier’s dark magic tends to go a long way, however, so we’re most accustomed to seeing him in supporting roles and cursèd cameos, unnerving us from the sidelines. An otherwise mild-mannered diversion from the American indie hinterland, Swan Song is the rare film to give this cult actor the center-stage spotlight, and a mirrorball-refracted spotlight at that. The fact that he’s in every scene of Todd Stephens’ sentimental queer comedy is, it turns out, the boldest decision in a film that doesn’t always honor its professed credo to live life out loud. It counts heavily on Kier’s physical otherworldliness to disrupt and enliven its middlebrow, middle-American comportment, and on his strange, slowed delivery to find soul and sorrow in its tidy, on-the-nose dialogue. It’s tempting to say this sweet, shaggy film isn’t quite worthy of him, but let’s not be so hasty. Any film that invites the actor to do this much — and to do most of it clad in a spearmint-colored women’s safari suit — deserves his good grace.
Kier plays real-life figure Pat Pitsenbarger, an apparent local legend in Stephens’ hometown of Sundusky, Ohio, who passed away in 2012. With that context, the film’s slightly precious tenderness comes into focus. It’s left to us to wonder whether Pitsenbarger — presented here as a beautician beloved of the community’s well-to-do women, and a founding father of the town’s gay scene — was half so exotic a fish out of water as Kier is in these beige suburban surroundings. There’s no hint of backstory here as to how Kier’s thickly accented Pat, a man who wearily sashays down streets with a hint of alien contempt even for his allies, wound up doing perms and blow-dries for Ohioan Republican matrons, but that works to the film’s benefit: There’s a gentle sense here of how small communities forge their own characters.
Wherever he came from, however, Pat is introduced as someone with no distance left to run. Mentally agile if physically frail at 70-ish years of age, he’s wasting away in a drab nursing home on the outskirts of Sundusky, where nobody comes to visit. Reveries of more sociable times with past clients, gay friends and his late husband Paul are welcome intrusions on his waking hours, which he otherwise marks with indulgent, verboten smoke breaks. Even Pat’s beloved More cigarettes, long and louche and little-sold these days, are receding into the past.
But then the past comes calling, offering Pat an unexpected reason to escape. Rita, a former longtime client, has died and expressly requested that he style her for the wake. When her lawyer passes on the message, he initially plays hard to get. “Bury her with bad hair,” he snaps; it’s one of many lines that most actors would deliver with imperious sass, but that take on a graver, more wounding kind of menace from Kier’s lips. Still, there are enough unresolved issues — with Rita, with Sandusky, with himself — plaguing Pat to eventually coax him back into the outside world. As he flees the nursing home at a limping pace, searching (mostly in vain) for objects and acquaintances of his past, the movie turns into a hazy, shapeless quest narrative, in which the objective keeps shifting and flickering out of view. A significant portion of screen time is dedicated to a search for Rita’s favored, long-destocked brand of hairspray, though Pat doesn’t seem to need it as much he misses needing it to begin with. Swan Song is surprisingly moving when it fixates on such banalities.
When it takes bigger emotional swings, however, the film is on shakier ground. A fanciful running device, through which Pat faces the ghosts of the past by, well, literally facing the ghosts of a past, is maudlin and obvious. He conducts a series of redemptive conversations with the dead — including Rita herself, played by Dynasty‘s Linda Evans behind a spectacularly frosted wig — but these scenes largely have the effect of vocalizing pain that Kier’s desolate, quietly anguished performance has already plainly suggested. None of them, furthermore, have the wit or weight of two scenes in which Kier cattily spars with the splendid Jennifer Coolidge, as a former protégé turned business rival. The longer they snipe, the more their sitcom banter takes on a bittersweet undertow; she’s not quite friend or foe to Pat, but she is someone who remembers him, which at this point is intimacy enough.
Amid the prevailing melancholy, Stephens has more fun playing against his star’s persona when probing Pat’s history as a disco-fabulous performer at the local, soon-to-close gay bar. A somewhat random subplot involving the establishment’s last hurrah may throw the film’s already shaky timeline altogether out of whack — the bulk of the action appears to unfold over one 48-hour day. But it also gives us Kier, resplendent in a chandelier headdress, shaking it to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” … so call it even. That’s a pretty indelible image, and the one that will linger once Swan Song’s blander components fade from memory.