Every Friday at 4 pm for 33 years, Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans) visited Mr Pat’s (Udo Kier) salon. He’d style her hair and, like any hairdresser and client, they’d share secrets they never told anybody else. Hairdressing is essentially a personal art. But when Pat’s assistant, Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge) opened up her own business on the other side of the road, she took clients with her and, leading the way, was the wealthy and influential Rita. It marked the start of Pat’s professional and personal decline and he never forgets it.
Such is the background to Swan Song (not to be confused with Mahershala Ali’s film of the same name from last year), which opens to find Pat in a residential home and receiving a visit from a local lawyer. The recently deceased Rita has specified in her will that he should look after her hair and make up for her funeral. He declines emphatically – “Bury her with bad hair!” – but re-considers and, sneaking out of the home, makes his way into town to do the job. It becomes a journey into his past, re-visiting familiar places, renewing acquaintances and confronting some less than happy memories.
At the centre of this touching comedy is Kier as Mr Pat, his defiant flamboyance disguising the deepest of personal pain and encroaching physical weakness. Against a soundtrack of songs about lost love from icons such as Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey and Judy Garland, the film pieces together the jigsaw of his life – that he was also a drag artist, that his partner died of AIDS and that many of his customers never forgot how he changed their lives. With his ice blue eyes and just the occasional smile or laugh, Kier uses his otherworldly quality to give Pat a style of his very own and a strength that, at times, is truly formidable. He cuts a solitary figure in the residential home, yet outside its confines says “hello” to everybody he passes. It’s a finely tuned performance, one full of compassion and humanity and which draws you into his world like a magnet. You reach for a tissue more than once.
While much of the focus is on the sadness in Pat’s past, this is most definitely a comedy, one where the humour is bittersweet and, at times, joyously bitchy. The talons are definitely out when Pat catches up with his nemesis Dee Dee, who lives up to her “nasty” reputation among the other hairdressers, unable to resist jibes at the older man’s expense. But he gives as good as he gets and emerges with his dignity intact. Yet for a film with a reflective, sometimes sombre, story at its core, it’s also a riot of colour when Pat is on the road to his past. From the pink hat he’s given to protect him from the sun, to the pistachio suit he picks up at a charity shop and the final drag act at the bar he used to frequent, the often vibrant visuals are a stark contrast to the greyness of the residential home. And his last performance in the club rejoices in being just a tad ridiculous.
Pat has the kind of last hurrah we’d all wish for. One that celebrates life, puts old scores to rest and goes out on a high note. Much the same can be said for Todd Stephens’ film, which warms the heart but comes with an ever-present sting of melancholy. Pat has an appointment of his own to keep, after all.
Comedy, Drama | Cert: 12A | UK cinemas from 10 June 2022 | Peccadillo Pictures | Dir. Todd Stephens | Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Tom Bloom.