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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Swan Song *****

Starring: Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie

Director: Todd Stephens

Country: USA

Director Todd Stephens (Edge Of Seventeen, Another Gay Movie) isn’t known for his subtlety nor his restraint. In fact, his filmography is a veritable smorgasbord of kitsch delights, so with this new story about a formerly flamboyant hairdresser re-finding his mojo, you should know exactly what you’re getting with Stephens at the helm… Except it would appears that the director has grown up. And the result is subsequently the perfectly judged balance of camp and subtlety, kitsch and restraint. This is surely a queer classic in the making.

Pat Pitsenbarger (Kier – Hunters, Melancholia) is in a nursing home, where he passes his time folding napkins and trying not to reflect on the glamorous life he had before. In his heyday, he had been the stylist to the rich and famous in his town, including Rita Sloan (Evans – Dynasty), a rich socialite with whom he was best friends but is now estranged. When a lawyer visits the home and tells him that Rita has died, Pat is surprised to learn that she has made arrangements in her will for him to style her hair for her funeral, hoping this final act would be a way to extend the olive branch post-mortem. Reluctantly accepting, Pat leaves the home and gather the tools he needs to complete this final job.

Along the way he meets an array of gloriously colourful characters, including the resplendent Jennifer Coolidge (American Pie, A Mighty Wind), who plays his long-time rival Dee Dee. In several pearl-clutching exchanges, Pat rediscovers his inner bitch, even if their enmity is smoke and mirrors, masking their affection for one another. Coolidge delivers one of her finest performances in years, but that’s nothing in comparison to Udo Kier, who is nothing short of remarkable as Pat. A faded queen who re-finds his oeuvre, his resting-bitch-face, swishy mannerisms and caustic tongue are like a Quentin Crisp for the Netflix generation. And there’s something so much more cutting hearing a razor-sharp read from his mouth than ever a young sasspot could manage.

The contrast between the food-stained trackies of its earliest scenes and the glamour of the final act is stark and magnificent. It’s been years since a film revelled in its own campery quite so much, but what makes that all the more ironic is that it’s actually the most restrained Stephens has ever been. Yes, this is as flamboyant as a flamingo in a gilded cage, but there is a subtlety to Kier’s performance and a restraint to Stephens’ direction that makes this such an intelligent film. Most will watch this film for its extravagance, but everyone will remember most its massive beating heart.

In a late scene, Pat meets Rita’s grandson (Urie – Ugly Betty, Single All The Way) who tells him that when he came out to his conservative grandmother and was concerned about her reaction, she accepted him because of her former GBF. Pat paved the way so a new generation of queer people could walk with ease. This reverence of now-elderly gay pioneers is laced throughout this film. Pat lost his partner from AIDS in the 80s and the film acknowledges the loneliness of many older gay men, living solitary lives away from the communities they once had. Just from the simple act of giving him employment, Pat rediscovers companionship, showmanship and pride in the person he continues to be. This is pretty air-punching feel-good schmaltz, but isn’t that what we all need sometimes? And it’s a tight narrative that hits all the right buttons.

At a time when teen LGBT+ coming-of-age movies have dominated the agenda for twenty-five years, it’s refreshing to see a whole new kind of coming-of-age film. And Stephens, who directed one of the very first teen gay films – Edge Of Seventeen – is on to a winner once again. Because if this is the start of a new sub-genre of Queer Cinema, I am absolutely here for it.

UK Release: 10th June in cinemas, released by Peccadillo Pictures


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