• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (10/6/2022)

)(Reviews of Il Buco; Leave No Traces; All My Friends Hate Me; and Swan Song)


It's safe(ish) to presume that cinema-going is a thing again. However, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.


IL BUCO.


In 1961, a group of speleologists from Turin came to the Pollino mountains in a remote region of Calabria to descend into the Bifurto Abyss. This is one of Italy's deepest caves and director Michelangelo Frammartino recreates the expedition to explore a range of philosophical and socio-political issues in Il Buco, his long-awaited follow-up to the masterly Le Quattro Volte (2010).


As two of his long-horned charges peer into the depths of the cave, Calabrian cowherd (Paolo Cossi) calls across the unspoilt terrain that is a million miles from Milan, where a TV reporter is peeking through the windows of the newly constructed Pirelli Tower. But it's 1961 and the amateur cavers arriving in Villapiana are proud to be the first to venture so far south in pursuit of their hobby.


As they bundle their equipment into a truck to carry them into the hills, the cowherd collects firewood with his donkey for the shack he shares with several colleagues. Around the fire, one does impressions of a braying donkey that contrasts with the squealing of a pig in the village, as the cavers settle in and the locals crowd into the church to pray. While some watch a variety show on the only television set, the children scurry round the darkened streets wearing headlamps, as the visitors hunker down for a night in the sacristy.


The next morning, the truck looks tiny as it edges across the pasture towards the Bifurto Abyss. Looking as gnarled as the tree he is resting under, the cowherd watches from on high. One caver alights on to a ledge and drops a couple of stones to gauge the cavern's depth. His companions sound suitably impressed by the scale of the challenge awaiting them.


Following a night around the campfire, the first pair begin the descent. Pages from a glossy magazine with President John F. Kennedy and Sophia Loren on the cover are lit and dropped to show the way. The buzzing of flies around the entrance soon gives way to the echoing tread of sturdy boots on implacable stone, as the pair pick their way downwards.


While the support group huddle in their tents, the cowherd's donkey returns alone to the shack and its occupants know instantly that something is wrong. Picking their way by lanterns, they call out in the nocturnal pitch and eventually locate the stricken fellow and bring him home. Unaware of this everyday drama, the speleologists make progress, driving metal spikes into the rock in order to fasten ropes and ladders. Cries and whistles are used to communicate, as equipment is lowered. However, a leather football also bounces down unexpectedly after two men try kicking it across the chasm.


Drawings are made to chart the route, while a doctor arrives to examine the cowherd. An inflatable dinghy is required for the next leg of the journey, as the team encounter a pool. Meanwhile, the cows meander into the camp and graze between photographs that have blown out of one of the tents. Two men scramble along a crawl space with their torches lighting up the narrow tunnel. Eventually, they reach a dead end and sit in deep-breathing silence.


Back at the shack, the cowherd dies and his body is placed on a makeshift stretcher to be dragged by donkey to the village. A cartographer painstakingly completes his ink drawing of the route and a caption informs us that the team reached 687m (2254ft) below the surface.


From the opening shot of the sky appearing through the cavernous darkness, this is a film that challenges the audience's sense of perspective. With so many images illuminated solely by torchlight and festooned with tremulous shadows, viewers can almost feel the crunch of the dust beneath their feet, as they try to get their bearings. Working in tandem, Renato Berta's photography and Simone Paolo Olivero's sound design have a cocooning effect that will send shivers through claustrophobes.


By contrasting the youthful exploits of the spelunkers with the slow passing of the aged cowherd, Frammartino and co-scenarist Giovanna Giuliani are clearly seeking to give the impression of lives hanging by a slender thread. But, besides the pointed reference to the country's north-south divide, they also have other issues on their agenda. The 1961 setting seemingly alludes to the early stages of the economic miracle that transformed Italy after a period of postwar stagnation. Frammartino may even be implying that life will go on after the Covid-19 pandemic that claimed the lives of so many old people.


Those with a greater knowledge of Italian society will be able to identify themes with more certainty, as will those with an interest in metaphysics and a familiarity with Plato's cave (whose flickering shadows have long been seen as a harbinger of the moving image). Nevertheless, this largely wordless and often withdrawn rumination on life's highs and lows and the ephemeral and eternal aspects of our planet still proves immersively compelling and deceptively profound. It would certainly make for an intriguing double bill with Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw's Piedmont-set actuality, The Truffle Hunters (2020), and even a triple with Le Quattro Volte, which was filmed nearby in the Pollino village where Frammartino's parents lived and whose mayor had planted a seed by dropping a stone into the Bifurto Abyss. lookout in a hotel room across the street hadn’t become engrossed in Attack of the Puppet People on TV and therefore failed to raise the alarm when the security guard started his round.


EARWIG.


Having impressed deeply with the short, La Bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996), and the features, Innocence (2004) and Evolution (2015), Lucile Hadzihalilovic makes her English-language debut with Earwig. Adapted from a novella by Brian Catling, this keeps threatening to turn into something that Davids Lynch and Cronenberg might have concocted after watching Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973). But, with its lengthy dialogue-free passages and gnomic determination to resist anything that might be construed as interpretable, this is very much a unique contribution to cinema's ongoing quest to achieve sensory immersion.


Known as `Earwig' because of his sensitivity to sound, Albert Scellinc (Paul Hilton) cares for Mia (Romane Hemelaers) in a large, dimly lit house. His duties include preparing her meals and replacing the ice dentures that are frozen from the saliva that collects in two glass capsules at either side of a metal brace. Despite Albert rarely speaking to her, Mia seems happy enough, as she drags a strip of newspaper behind her, like a dog on a lead.


One night, she coaxes Albert out of the kitchen to look at a painting of a stately home. As he stares at the canvas with a stentorian wall clock ticking in the distance, he recalls his younger self (Martin Verset) exploring the cavernous corridors and being drawn by the sound of someone running their finger around the rim of a wine glass. He ventures into another tenebrous room and inspects the glasses stored in a backlit display case. Wetting the tip of his finger, he recreates the reassuring sound of long ago and allows his mind to sink into a kaleidoscopic haze of diffused light and distorted colour.


Having listened in on Mia by placing a tumbler against the bedroom door, Albert turns off the light and the girl climbs into bed, grinding her teeth as she dozes off to sleep. Albert retires to an attic room and is still dressing the next morning when he hears the sound of shattering glass. He doesn't scold Mia for breaking the goblet, however. Instead, he folds the pieces in newspaper and stores them in a bundle.


He is interrupted by the telephone and is taken aback when a male voice informs him that his contract won't be renewed, as it's time that Mia makes her way in the world. The caller asks after her teeth before ordering Albert to prepare her for life outside.


Unsettled by the news, Albert buries his head in his hands as Mia's lunch cooks. She giggles when he puts socks on her feet, but she resists when he tries to lace up her shoes. He shows her a red coat and tells her that she has to get used to going outdoors. Leaving the imposing house, they stroll briskly down some steps and along a tree-lined path. Suddenly, Mia bolts away and seems to topple into a lake on the sight of her own reflection. Having pulled her on to the bank, Albert looks round and sees a woman watching from a small wooden bridge.


Things are never quite the same again. Mia asks to go out again and Albert resorts to shuttering the windows and slipping a sleeping pill into her water. He sidles off to a nearby bar, where Céleste (Romola Garai) brings a beer to his table. A stranger (Peter Van den Begin) sits beside him and wonders if they have met before, perhaps at the orphanage. As Albert tries to ignore him, the man orders another drink and inquires after his wife, Marie (Anastasia Robin). When Albert denies being married, his companion mentions Mia. Nettled, Albert smashes his glass on the table edge and thrusts out, only to catch Céleste in the face. As she collapses to the floor, bleeding profusely, Albert runs away into the night. He has forgotten his jacket and is tormented by images of Marie seeming to die in childbirth.


The next morning, Albert oversleeps and Mia comes to find him, as she cannot fend for herself. He reassures the man on the phone that everything is fine, but he has been shaken, especially as Mia has started to hum the tune with which he associates Marie.


Meanwhile, Céleste wakes in hospital to find Laurence (Alex Lawther) beside her bed. He reassures her that everything will be okay and urges her to take some soup. Swallowing hurts her cheek and he eases the pain with some drops from a small bottle.


After being woken in the night by a vision of a pregnant Marie at the foot of his bed, Albert has problems fitting Mia's plates and has to ask the concierge (Isabelle de Hertogh) for help because her gums have started bleeding. At the hospital, Laurence invites Céleste to stay with him and she returns to her gloomy apartment to sob over a photograph of a young boy. While walking in the park, she agrees to move in with Laurence and we see her standing on the bridge watching Albert pull Mia out of the lake.


Albert is livid with the concierge for failing to call their masters to request assistance. He is also perplexed by the fact that he saw a basket on the steps of the stately home (as if he had been left thusly at the orphanage as an infant). However, he has his duties to do and welcomes the doctor, when he arrives with a black cat in a basket. While he sets up in the kitchen, Mia takes the cat to her room and it hisses at Albert when he tries to force her to come downstairs.


She is fitted with glass implants and Albert is instructed to keep her mouth clean with salt water. When Mia goes to sleep, he touches her teeth and her bottom lip quivers. He returns to the kitchen to scrub the table and becomes cross when the cat starts howling in its basket. It scratches him when he grabs the scruff of its neck and he crumples to the floor in miserable pain.


When they take a train journey, the cat watches Albert, as it purrs on Mia's lap. Céleste and Laurence are in an adjoining compartment and a small girl looks on as Céleste savours the relief after taking a couple of drops from the small bottle. Laurence helps her on to the platform and goes to see about transport. However, Céleste spots Albert peering from behind a curtain and climbs back on board, just as the train departs.


A thick fog descends and it appears as though the passengers are forced to stay in a nearby inn. Albert and Céleste drink at separate tables in the bar before the latter retires to her room. As she lies on the bed, she begins having difficulty breathing and Albert also starts to choke, as he eats his supper with Mia. She looks up and sees Marie sitting opposite her and their hands reach out across the white table cloth, which is stained with red wine, as Albert slumps forwards.


He recovers sufficiently to deliver Mia to her new home. The doctor who welcomes her resembles the stranger from the bat. When he signs the papers to end his guardianship, Albert is alarmed when the receptionist (Marie Bos) shows him a birth certificate suggesting that Mia is his daughter. Huffily, he dismisses the evidence and goes to leave. Passing the cat in the hallway, he strides across the lawn. Céleste comes towards him and stabs him in the neck before gulping greedily at the blood flowing from the wound. As the light changes on the façade of the building from the painting, the camera retreats so that Céleste's feasting on Albert looks more like an embrace than an assault.


So many evaluations of this Kafkaesque chiller are viable that it's hard to know where to start. The entire story could have been dreamt by any one of the four principals, although it's just as likely that Céleste is Mia exacting revenge upon Albert many years later for delivering her into a hellish unknown. It certainly seems likely that he is her father and may well have left her on the orphanage steps (where he may well have been abandoned himself) because he blamed her for the death of his beloved wife, Marie. While this reading may be plausible, however, it doesn't explain how Albert came to be looking after Mia in a gloomy house in an unidentified European city sometime after a war (First or Second?). Or why Mia has ice teeth.


Capriciously withholding information in their indifference to the course and meaning of the narrative, Hadzihalilovic and co-scenarist Geoff Cox seem content to let events play second fiddle to the atmosphere of the action and the tone and texture of the visuals. Such is the tactility of Julia Irribaria's production design that the glistening patina of the beige walls of the house feels as sticky as toffee, while every creak of the floorboards resounds as loudly as the ticking clock or the yowling cat in Ken Yasumoto's sound design. But it's a wonder we can make out anything, as Jonathan Ricquebourg's lighting makes the most Stygian Rembrandt canvas seem positively dayglo by comparison.


Given the quirkiness of the décor, it should come as no surprise to learn that Marc Caro, the co-director (with Jean-Pierre Jeunet) of Delicatessen (1991) should have designed the mouthpiece worn by Romane Hemelaers. She does well enough as the submissive girl who accepts her dental destiny with good grace and makes do with newspapers from Dundee as her playthings. But, even though Paul Hilton, Romola Garai and Alex Lawther similarly impress, none of the characters have personalities in the accepted sense of the word. Instead, they are puzzle people who are moved around the mise-en-scène like pieces in an elaborate board game.


Notwithstanding the broodingly brilliant score by Agustin Viard and Warren Ellis, some will respond to such archly austere shenanigans more positively than others. But there's no denying the singularity of Hadzihalilovic's vision or the precision of her exquisitely eccentric image making.


LEAVE NO TRACES.


Disturbing echoes of the Cinema of Moral Anxiety permeate Jan P. Matuszynski's compelling account of the murder of aspiring Polish poet Grzegorz Przemyk and the efforts of the state, the secret police and the Citizens' Militia to prevent the only eyewitness from testifying. Scripted by Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk from a book by Cezary Lazarewicz, this 160-minute procedural contains the odd moment of ill-conceived satire. But Leave No Traces is a gut-punching reminder of the easy with patriotism can sleepwalk its way into becoming the bedfellow of tyranny.


Despite martial law recently having been lifted after its imposition to thwart the ambitions of the Solidarity trade union, the Polish security forces are still prepared to throw their weight around in the Warsaw of 1983. Consequently, when newly graduated teenagers Grzegorz Przemyk (Mateusz Górski) and Jurek Popiel (Tomasz Zietek) are caught larking around in Castle Square without identification, they are dragged to the nearest police station. As the son of renowned poet Barbara Przemyk (Sandra Korzeniak), Grzegorz knows his rights. But his cockiness provokes the duty officers, who are encouraged to leave no marks on the body in administering a brutal beating.


When Grzegorz dies of his injuries, Barbara uses her contacts to hide Jurek away, as he is the only person who can identify her son's killers. The funeral conducted by Fr Jerzy Popieluszko (Adam Bobik) squarely points the finger at the authorities and local news reports about the arrest of a couple of drunken junkies are challenged by reports on the BBC and Radio Free Europe.


With police commander Beim (Jerzy Bonczak) refusing to let any of his men be charged, Interior Minister Cleslaw Kiszczak (Robert Wieckiewicz) orders a cover-up and has fixer Stanislaw Kowalczyk (Tomasz Kot) circulate stories that the cries heard from the police station were related to kung-fu moves being used by the detainees. Moreover, paramedic Michal Wysocki (Sebastian Pawlak), is accused of mistreating Grzegorz in a hospital life and coerced into confessing for the good of his family.


A concerted campaign is then launched to persuade card-carrying old soldier Tadeusz Popiel (Jacek Braciak) and his hairdresser wife, Grazyna (Agnieszka Grochowska), to persuade their son into withdrawing his testimony. Their anxiety increases when Grazyna's salon is closed down and Tadeusz is presented with a ruinous tax bill. Furthermore, when letters are found suggesting Jurek had a romantic liaison with Barbara, the prosecutors are quick to threaten her reputation.


Even Prime Minister General Wojciech Jaruzelski (Tomasz Dedek) has his say before the trial. But this caricature sits as uneasily as Aleksandra Konieczna's consciously over-the-top depiction of Prosecutor Wieslawa Bardon, who could be relied upon by the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa to swing even the least promising cases. Her hectoring of Jurek in the witness box ensures that justice is not done and that Wysocki and his colleague remain the scapegoats. However, Matuszynski clearly intends Tadeusz's remorse at allowing himself to be manipulated into securing the verdict to remind his compatriots of the dangers of listening to hardliners and their threats and promises.


Authentically designed Pawel Jarzebski and photographed on 16mm by Kacper Fertacz with a restraint that is matched by the performances, this is a gruelling reconstruction of grim times that evokes memories of the contemporary works of Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Agnieszka Holland and Ryszard Bugajski, whose Interrogation (1982) keeps popping into the mind during the more harrowing moments.


Matuszynski's documentary background is evident in the tone and style, although he does allow the pace to meander at times, even though a resulting release from the relentless tightening of the grip is welcome. The sheer fact that Jurek is a fictional version of Cezary Filozof suggests that the scars have yet to heal. But one fears that Matuszynski's attempt to draw parallels between the Grzegorz Przemyk's death and recent instances of police brutality such as the murder of George Floyd doesn't quite succeed.


ALL MY FRIENDS HATE ME.


Much as we might want to stop all the clocks, there's no escaping the fact that the 30th anniversary of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) is creeping on a pace. Given how templatious this Richard Curtis romcom has proved to be, it seems strange that no one has succeeded in satirising it. The latest to try are the Totally Tom duo of Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer in Andrew Gaynord's debut feature, All My Friends Hate Me.


Fresh from a stint as a volunteer at a refugee camp, Pete (Tom Stourton) returns to Blighty to find that his university friends have organised a birthday bash at the manor house owned by the blue-blooded George (Joshua McGuire). Northern working-class girlfriend Sonia (Charly Clive) has teased him about a reunion with old flame, Claire (Antonia Clarke), but he assures her that the presence of Fig (Georgina Campbell) and Archie (Graham Dickson) will mean that keep things strictly old gangish.


Following unfortunate brushes with a couple of the locals, Tom is deflated on rolling up to Darude's `Sandstorm' to find the house empty. He is shivering beneath blankets on the settee when everyone returns from the pub, with Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns) and his goose in tow. The stranger teases Tom about being the `skipper' of the crew and gives him the floor to tell an anecdote about a yokel giving him instructions. However, Norman (Christopher Fairbank) is standing behind him, having popped in to fill the ice machine and turn on the pool heater. When Tom swears he wasn't taking the mickey, Norman accuses him of being a liar before taking his leave.


Dismayed to learn that Harry has been offered the sofa bed, Tom goes for a bath after the others go to freshen up. He's put out when Harry pops in wearing a towel to have a shave and comment on the shape of his penis, but George reassures Pete that Harry's a top man and will make the weekend go with a swing. Pete confesses to feeling timid around the stranger and his mood dips further when George confides that Claire had tried to kill herself following their break-up.


He joins the others for cocktails, where Harry mocks him for looking like James Bond with his martini glass. Fig urges George to stop Harry from finding a gun for Pete to pose with so that they can send an audition to the 007 producers. His efforts to talk about his experiences at the refugee camp are shouted down and he finds himself being called out again when he ticks off Archie for calling lower-class people peasants in front of Harry. Once again, Harry scores a point off Pete, who is surprised that his friends have fallen in with someone who is clearly not their sort.


Having reassured Sonia that all's well, he is horrified to find the goose with its throat cut on the front seat of his car. He also has to deal with the fact that Claire has heard that he plans to propose to Sonia and feels bad when she refers to her suicide bid while toasting him and thanking the others for pulling her through. Just to cap things off, Fig chides him on the stairs for breaking Claire's heart and lying about pulling her before she hooked up with George.


After a rough night, with Harry snoring on the sofa bed and Claire hanging herself in a dream, Pete gets down to breakfast to discover that Claire has left. Fig admonishes him when he blames Harry for telling her about the engagement and George tries to keep the peace, even though Pete feels picked on (and notices that Harry keeps scribbling in a notebook) in between noisy mouthfuls of sausage and slurps of tea.


Up in his room, Pete notices that his pills have gone missing. He also spots a photo of a small child on Harry's phone and confides in Archie that he thinks he recognises him from somewhere. Brandishing a rifle he didn't know was loaded, Archie scoffs at his conspiracy theory. But he leaves Pete stranded at the house when they drive to the pub and he has to walk there with Harry.


As they stroll along a wooded lane, Harry pries about Claire and raises the subject of a classmate called Plank who had once turned up to a party with a wheel of cheese. Pete asks Harry how he knows about this incident and he says his friends had told him in the pub. He also insists that he wasn't the man who had chased Pete after he had found him sleeping in his car in a field (prior to meeting Norman). But Pete has had enough and he tells Harry to butt out before getting lost in the woods. Spooked by finding the goose carcass in the undergrowth, he finally spots the pub, only to turn to see Harry chasing after him with a hatchet.


Barging into the pub, Pete is flummoxed to find that George, Fix and Archie had planned the whole thing to give them time to decorate the pub, which they have rented for the day. Still feeling bruised, Pete joins the party and watches Archie singing `Love Is All Around' on the karaoke machine. Fig reveals that there's still another surprise to come, as she stops Pete telling her about his work at the camp.


After Archie forces Pete to do a line of coke, he accuses him of snorting the whole packet and only calms down when Harry admits to spilling some (telling Pete that he owes him one). But Pete feels better when George agrees to be his best man because they're the kind of friends who can pick up where they left off no matter how many years elapse.


He's soon back in the discomfort zone, when George explains that he's asked Norman to set up a rough shoot to pass the afternoon. Having never held a gun before, Pete fails to bag a single bird and George is embarrassed in front of his father's beaters. On the defensive, Pete claims he did his best and then takes umbrage when he spots the car the angry man had been sleeping in and everyone tuts at him for thinking himself superior to a homeless person.


Back at the house, Pete is relieved to see that Claire has returned. He tells her about his misgivings over Harry and she reassures him that he's just on edge about being the centre of attention. They hug, but Pete dashes away when Sonia arrives and they hug in slo-mo in the doorway in the beam of the taxi headlights.


Harry seems put out by Sonia getting on with everyone, but Pete notices that Archie goes quiet after she teases him about a Jimmy Savile impression. Following him to his room, Pete reassures him that Sonia likes him and that a career path will open up for him. He also shares that he has been in therapy to help him deal with his anxiety and they embrace before Archie divulges that he has also noticed Harry behaving oddly.


Storming off to his room, Pete rummages through Harry's bag and finds the notebook. He also looks down to see him cuddling Sonia on the driveway and rushes downstairs to confront him. He tells him to stay away from Sonia and threatens to expose him as a madman to the others. But Harry is anything but intimidated. Moreover, Sonia thinks he's overthinking things and suggests that an early night will do him good.


Waking to hear the party in full swing, Pete finds everyone in the billiard room. Everyone is wearing something symbolising their favourite memory of him and he thanks them all for going to such trouble. However, he becomes tense again when the doorbell rings and Fig announces the arrival of his big surprise.


This turns out to be Fake Pete (Kieran Hodgson), one of the beaters from the shoot who impersonates Pete and mocks his self-righteousness and insecurity. He recognises the lines from things that Harry had been noting down. But then he recalls where he had seen Harry before and confesses to having prank called a girl on his street with learning difficulties and scared her with barking noises. She had suffocated herself with a bag, but the police hadn't charged him because they thought it was a tragic accident. Only her brother had blamed him and Pete apologises to Harry for the distress he has caused him.


But Harry insists he is Plank and that they others had found him on Facebook and invited him to relive the last wild party of their college days. Pete isn't convinced, however, and blurts out his plan to propose to Sonia, who is clearly embarrassed. When he asks why they have been persecuting them, they declare that Old Pete would have loved being roasted and that he has changed so much he's not on their wavelength any longer.


Fig points out that he hasn't asked any of them about themselves because he's so obsessed with himself. Pete protests that he's still the hedonistic Skippy and up for fun. But no one remembers the nickname and, when Harry taunts him over it, Pete fells him with a vase. Everyone rushes to help him, while Pete stands aghast and alone.


Driving back from Devon the next day, Pete tells Sonia he'd understand if she wanted to dump him. She says she does and he starts to cry. Sonia bursts out laughing and accepts his proposal, but she just wishes he could take a joke.


From the opening notes of `What a Fool Believes' by The Doobie Brothers to the boom-boom punchline, this is a wince-inducingly witty lampoon of Kenneth Branagh's Peter's Friends (1992) rather than Four Weddings. But the uni vibe carries through both, of course, and Stourton and Palmer's writing darkly pastiches each to perfection. Right down to the throwaway rendition of `Love Is All Around'. They only thing they've forgotten to consider is why this coterie would go to such lengths to celebrate an estranged chum's 31st.


There are echoes in the set-up of such social anxiety comedies as Dominik Moll's Harry, He's Here to Help (2000), Ben Wheatley's Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018), Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman (2020) and Sebastian Godwin's Homebound (2021), but they are bound to be coincidental. After all, everyone who went to college came across at least one frightful boor. Indeed, they might actually have been that narcissistic knob and still haven't worked it out.


Notwithstanding the cannily skewed sympathies, there seem to be several candidates within this gang. But, while the others may have their faults, they managed to cling together while Pete was off saving the world. They are splendidly played by an ensemble that flirts with caricature, as Gaynord judges the emotional shifts, conclusion jumps and sudden jolts that compel the audience to see the increasingly paranoid and privilege-averse Pete from perspectives that are blindingly obvious to everyone but himself.


He's abetted in this regard by Ben Moulden's slyly observant camerawork, Saam Hodilvala rug-pulling editing and the Joe Robbins and Will Lowes score that seems to be in on every joke, but abjures from giving the game away. The only let down (beside the grouse shoot and the strained roast) is the car home coda, although, judging from Sonia's toying with the self-loathing Pete, there's no guarantee that he's completely shaken off his exterminating angel.


SWAN SONG.


During the course of a 270-credit career, Udo Kier has always retained the ability to surprise. He surpasses himself, however, in Todd Stephens's Swan Song, the second film of this title to be released in the last year. But this audacious, if maddeningly skewhiff comedy is not likely to be confused by anyone with Benjamin Cleary's 2021 clone saga starring Mahershala Ali.


Clad in sweat pants and a t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of his much-missed poodle, gay hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) lives in a retirement home in Ohio. Forever defying the nurse keen to ensure he doesn't have another stroke, the septuagenarian spends his days folding napkins, dreaming about his partner, David (Eric Eisenbrey), who died of AIDS, and listening to Judy Garland, Maria Callas and Shirley Horn. He also slips out of his room each day to share a More cigarette with Gertie (Annie Kitral), a locked-in woman, who sits alone in her wheelchair at the end of a cheerless corridor.


This routine is interrupted by Mr Shanrock (Tom Bloom), a lawyer who informs Pat that the late Sandusky socialite, Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), has asked him to do hair and make-up for her funeral. As she had ditched him for former assistant Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge), Pat turns down the request. But his conscience and curiosity get the better of him and he slips out of the home to collect a welcome $25,000 payday.


Walking into town, Pat gets emotional at David's grave and hugs the headstone before leaving him a slow-burning More. He feels better after African American hairdresser Ro Ro (Shanessa Sweeney) gives him a hat to protect his head from the sun and some teenage girls invite him to jump rope with them. On discovering that his old house has been knocked down, he explains to the plot's new owners that David hadn't made a will and that he had lost everything to a grasping nephew. They feel sorry for him and invite him to visit again, as he saunters off into town.


Having failed to persuade Shanrock to give him a loan, Pat shoplifts some beauty products. However, Dee Dee catches him in her salon and they reminisce about old times with teeth-clenched civility, as she donates a can of hairspray. She insists she didn't destroy him, as he dropped the ball and she merely picked it up. However, the encounter causes Pat to have a nosebleed and he only cheers up (accompanied by Melissa Manchester's `Don't Cry Out Loud', which is joined on the soundtrack by such survivor anthems as Dusty Springfield `Yesterday When I Was Young' and Shirley Bassey's `This is My Life') when a former client, Sue (Stephanie McVay), allows him to swap his hat for a pale green polyester leisure suit.


Intimidated by finally stepping inside Rita's house and meeting her grandson, Dustin (Michael Urie), Pat seeks sanctuary at the Universal Fruit and Nut Company, where he had performed cabaret under the name `Mister Pat'. He learns from Gabriel the bartender (Thom Hilton) that it's closing down that night and he sidles sadly away.


Unable to face Sherman (Richard Strauss) at the funeral home, Pat steals a bottle of brandy and has an imaginary waterside conversation with his old tearoom buddy, Eunice (Ira Hawkins). As they watch gay couple playing catch with their kids, he tells him to stop pining about the past and make the most of now. So, Pat returns to the bar and helps drag artist Miss Velma (Justin Lonesome) dress for her number. But it's Mister Pat who steals the show by coming on stage wearing Rita's cast-off chandelier.


Unfortunately, it short-circuits and Pat winds up in hospital. He refuses to stay in bed, however, and steals a motorised wheelchair to hold up traffic on the road to the funeral home. Dee Dee passes him in the hallway and tells him there was nothing she could do to make Rita look more presentable. Seeing her in the coffin, Pat recalls how she had failed to attend David's funeral and had led the exodus of rich clients. But she rises to apologise and admit that she had been embarrassed and scared by AIDS back in the 1980s.


Lighting a More, Pat forgives her and gives her a makeover. He also slips his scissors into her casket. Dustin is delighted and reveals that Rita had told him that her best friend was gay when he came out to her and confides that Pat and David had been like role models. As he finishes speaking, blood trickles from Pat's nose and he slumps over. The gathered guests line the hallway, as his body is wheeled away, and Dustin notices that he has stolen Rita's diamond slippers.


Based on Sandusky mentor Pat Pitsenbarger, who was also the inspiration for Stephens's coming-out debut, Edge of Seventeen (1998), this is an affectionate, uncondescending tribute that allows Udo Kier to run the gay gamut from Liberace to Quentin Crisp. He's very much abetted by costume designers Shawna-Nova Foley and Kitty Boots, whose mint pant suit and burgundy titfer suggest that those who compile the category's Oscar short list don't see enough movies. But this is a display of showstopping flamboyance, long before he dons the chandelier headdress and lights up the bar to Robyn's `Dancing on My Own'.


Yet, for all Kier's pride, pain and pathos, no one else in on screen long enough to make much of an impression. Annie Kitral's forgotten woman, Ira Hawkins's ghost of good times past, Jennifer Coolidge's brassy beautician, Michael Urie's grateful grandson and Linda Evans's penitent snob are all well played. But they're as thinly sketched as the other strangers Pat encounters on his odyssey (which never once sees him pursued by anyone from the retirement home, even though he's gone over a day).


Fortunately, Stephens makes some insightful comments about the changing gay subculture and how feels less fun now that everyone is more accepting or swiping for hook-ups on their phones. More importantly, he resists camping things up, so that Pat (and, therefore, Kier) has to be taken on his own terms. Despite the echoes of early John Waters, Percy Adlon's Bagdad Café (1987) and David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999), the balancing act isn't always convincing, but Kassandra DeAngelais's production design, Jackson Warner Lewis camerawork and Chris Stephens's score help convey Pat's shifting emotions, as he makes his bittersweet progress through a better world that he helped create without ever feeling he belongs.


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