‘Swan Song’: Spotlight Role As a Hairdresser

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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