SXSW 2021: Swan Song Review

Balancing reflection with honesty is a struggle for people, as well as for film. How well do we remember our own lives, and what good does it do us to remember the pain? Swan Song does not ask that question exactly, but it does play fast and loose with reality. And why shouldn’t it? The myths in life can be way more fun.

Swan Song stars Udo Kier as Pat. (And when I say it “stars” him, you should picture rhinestones and crushed velvet.) Pat is a retired hairdresser, in assisted living outside Sandusky, Ohio. The walls are gray, his clothes are gray, everyone’s hair is gray, and the only thing he seems to enjoy is sneaking cigarettes in the stairway. He also spends plenty of time compulsively collecting and folding paper napkins, but it would be a stretch to say he enjoys that.

One perfectly ordinary day, local lawyer (Tom Bloom) comes to the home to tell Pat that Rita (Linda Evans) has died and she had it in her will that Pat must do her hair for her funeral. Clearly there is a dramatic history there, and no amount of money or posthumous groveling would change Pat’s mind.

What does change Pat’s mind is a mild panic attack when a nurse takes away his cigarettes. Afterall, cigarettes and freedom are readily available outside the home’s walls. After busting out of that popsicle stand, Pat now must make the long journey back to Sandusky, and the even longer journey back to his old self.

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This framing sets up Swan Song as a typical road trip movie, without the car. It is that, on a certain level, but the charm and playfulness of Pat’s trek paints a line so clear that it cannot possibly be a reflection of reality. He never bothers to care much about money, and yet things always seem to work out. He meets just who he needs, just when he needs them. And even with his age and health issues, he can always get where he is going and do what he needs to do. Swan Song is not so fantastical that it is unbelievable, but it is also wholly unconcerned if you believe it or not.

That is the purest joy of this film. Besides the absolutely glorious and appropriately indulgent performance by Kier, this is a film that does not propose a downside to dreaming. What if everything worked out? Would that be so bad? It creates a world, within Ohio of all places, that allows for growth and change without further pain or agony. Pat is able to confront those who have wronged him and repair what deserves repairing, but no new fissures are created. No new tears of sorrow are shed, even with a funeral to come.

To say that Swan Song is a celebration of life might alienate the cynics, but surely watching it will turn their hearts a bit. It is a lovely look at the day in the life of one man, that may or may not be fiction. If this is all a lie, Swan Song is a beautiful lie.

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