Let's Not Make 'Swan Song' the Swan Song for Udo Kier

Todd Stephens' new film gives the iconic character actor the whole stage, and his domination is expected and utterly brilliant.

Swan Song Sxsw
Luna Pictures

Cast Udo Kier in your film, and I’ll be there. The German-born actor has appeared in hundreds of movies, and even though I have not seen them all, I am on a mission to do so. He pulsates within every frame, and his piercing light-blue eyes mesmerize, pulling you under his spell as if he were the actual Dracula he once played so lusciously for Andy Warhol¬†and Paul Morrissey decades ago.

Swan Song opens as any Kier obsessive would demand. The camera is planted in the cheap seats of a large auditorium. The chairs aren’t full yet, but they will be. We’re the lucky ones who got in their first. From behind the curtain, Kier steps forth. His movements stutter with a ghosting effect; it’s eerie and indicates something is off, but it’s also lyrical, suggesting his body lives in the past, present, and future. He announces himself as “Mister Pat” and that he’s “back,” and before the “k” hits, Kier’s hands jab at us, and we see the brass knuckles of rings adorning his fingers. He is legend.

Then we blink, or the film does, and we find Kier horizontal. His Mister Pat is, in actuality, Pat Pitsenbarger. The old hairdresser got knocked down by a stroke years ago, and he spends his days killing time in a nursing home, waiting for time to kill him. His only pleasures come from the methodical folding of cocktail napkins and stealing a smoke with a catatonic friend by the window. His gaze is as strong as ever, but its hypnotic quality doesn’t affect the staff that fluffs his pillow. Inside, he’s a prop. No different than a lamp or a vase.

One afternoon, a lawyer representing the deceased Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans) wanders into his room. The former client-turned-corpse requested her final ‘do be applied by Pat. With the shark before him, Pat shirks the mission. “Bury her with bad hair,” he says. It’s a barb backed with years of resentment and animosity. The script holds the pain for most of its runtime, but it’s evident from Kier’s joyously venomous delivery.

When the suit leaves, the yesterdays creep to Pat’s surface, penetrating the Judy Garland tunes that generally get him through the days. Behind the rage is desire, a hunger to get his fingers into the scalp again. Damn Rita. Pat will make her beautiful in spite of herself.

Pat mounts a jailbreak. It’s not an escape from Alcatraz, and the trek across town to the funeral home ain’t The Odyssey. Except, it may as well be. Pat’s tools are limited. His money even less so. What he has is skill and the confidence that comes with it. He may be strapped in sweatpants and gagging for breath, but he knows beneath it all is that Mister Pat dominating the stage during those first few frames. He hits the road, and as the steps are made, the star returns.

The strangers Pat encounters fall sway, as we all do, to Udo Kier. Swan Song acts as a makeover for Pat, and in doing so, it becomes a celebration for makeovers. Pat sees the possibilities in every person. We’re all a brush stroke away from magnificence.

Naturally, as doubt gums up the works of our engines, it’s easier to pinpoint the beauty in others than ourselves. Darkness and negativity stack easier and quicker than light and positivity. We hang onto self-loathing, and its roots bury deeper than other notions of self.

In chipping away at others with his charm, and through their kind gestures, Pat slowly re-assembles his glorious stature. The right mint-green pantsuit with the right purple hat, essentially gelled with a cravat, is a jolt to his heart. The hairdresser can’t be stopped. He may require a motorized wheelchair assist, but he owns that seat and the road under it.

Writer/Director Todd Stephens based Mister Pat on a real-life icon from his life, and Swan Song thrums with an intense love for its central protagonist. The film might be sold on its wacky plot synopsis — hairdresser busts out of the nursing home to style a dead woman’s hair — but the goofy mechanics fall away quickly. And, at first glance, Kier seems like an obvious fit for the weird setup, but the actor is too damn good.

Swan Song is not one of Kier’s myriad movies where he pops in to surprise or titillate. This is the first in a long time to welcome Kier for the whole meal. He’s in every scene, nearly every shot. You’ll get your giggles from his commanding entrance, but they’re gone by scene two. Kier is given the full stage to strut, and he hits the marks with precision and authority. You’re not going to get a sequel, but you’ll demand a repeat.

More marquees declaring “Starring Udo Kier,” please.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, Curator for One Perfect Shot, & co-host of the Comic Book Couples Counseling podcast.