Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
Udo Kier’s gift for playing strange, unnerving characters has sustained a career across hundreds of films. Paul Morrissey made him an underground star in the title roles of Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), Rainer Werner Fassbinder cast him in four of his films, while Kier’s first role for Gus van Sant in My Own Private Idaho (1991), as an oddball client of the two hustler protagonists, featured a crazed, unforgettable dance performance that made inventive use of a lamp. Many of his recent parts have been supporting roles, verging on cameos, although his meaty performance as the bloodthirsty sheriff in Bacurau (2019) received acclaim.
In Swan Song, Kier gets a rare lead role as Pat, an older gay hairdresser who escapes his nursing home to fulfil the dying wish of a former friend: to style her hair and apply her make-up for her funeral. It’s a pleasingly odd premise that should play to Kier’s considerable strengths, but sadly the film lumbers when it should sparkle.
In Swan Song, Kier is at his best when silent. When his eyes convey regret at past opportunities missed or when he defiantly returns the gaze of those who dare to cross him, Pat, who is based on a real person writer-director Todd Stephens knew as a child, comes alive. But many of the film’s comedy scenes, most of which fall to Kier, fail to land. The catty barbs, of which there are many, are clumsily delivered by Kier, as if Stephens were nervous to ask him for a retake. For the viewer, there may be a curious sense of watching something unfinished; the ending especially is rushed and unsatisfying.
Swan Song is the final part of Stephens’s semi-autobiographical Ohio Trilogy, made two decades after the previous instalments, Edge of Seventeen (1998, which he wrote but didn’t direct) and Gypsy 93 (2001). These were followed by two dreadful gay takes on the American Pie franchise, Another Gay Movie (2006) and Another Gay Sequel (2008). Swan Song is a return to comedy, but humour is not Stephens’s strength.
Nonetheless, Stephens remains adept at capturing the otherness of being queer in small-town America and introduces some fun cameos along the way. Refreshingly, Jennifer Coolidge plays it straight as Pat’s former stylist protégé, and Linda Evans, Dynasty’s Krystle Carrington, makes the best of a few minutes of screen time playing another fiery diva. As for Kier, who is starring in several films currently in pre- and post- production, the title of Swan Song is, fortunately, a misnomer. We can only hope that better films for this intriguing actor, so striking when coupled with the right director, are to come.
► Swan Song is in UK cinemas now.