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Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said that the five stages of confronting the certainty of death are denial, anger, bargaining, and then, when it is clear that bargaining is futile, depression, and finally acceptance. “Swan Song” suggests that technology could give a person who is facing death something to bargain with and for.
Love, according to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince, is finding each other unique in the world. Real love makes us feel fully seen and accepted, and that is only possible if we are honest about who we are. In “Swan Song,” though, set slightly in the future, Cameron (Mahershala Ali) has an existential dilemma. What if the greatest possible expression of his love for his wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris) depends on a lie so enormous that he can never feel uniquely seen again? Touching on issues of identity, integrity, and grief, “Swan Song” never feels formulaic due to the complex, committed performances of its stars and the thoughtful exploration of the issues it raises.
Cameron has not told Poppy that he has a terminal illness. A new technology gives him an option that will save Poppy and their son Cory (Dax Rey) from experiencing devastating loss, but it will only work if he tells no one. There is a lab that can create a new, healthy, Cameron, a Cameron 2.0, complete with all of his memories, who can step in to the life of the ailing Cameron while the old one dies alone but peacefully.
In flashbacks we get a charming glimpse of Cameron first meeting Poppy on a train, and of their earliest days together. The details of his situation and the choices he must make are revealed slowly. In the present, Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) is leaving him messages urging him to make up his mind quickly and reminding him that if he tells Poppy the truth about his prognosis, he will no longer have a choice to make. Whatever Dr. Scott is offering, it will only be available if Cameron acts quickly and if his wife knows nothing about it.
The offer is this: Dr. Scott can all but eliminate death by creating a new “you” to keep a version of you that is indistinguishable for even your closest family members essentially living your life. Cameron 2.0 (referred to as Jack during the final stages of development) will take over Cameron’s consciousness and the knowledge that he is not the original Cameron will be erased. So Poppy, Cory, all of his friends, family, and colleagues will think Jack is the original Cameron and the new Cameron will think so, too. Only the original Cameron, who must live his last few months in isolation and never see his family again, will know. Will Cameron trade the comfort of his family in his last days for the knowledge that he is saving them grief?
Writer/director Benjamin Cleary makes that decision even more difficult by ramping up the stakes. Cameron has seen Poppy devastated by loss before. And she is pregnant. The thought of leaving her with two children and unable to care for them as a single mother because she is struggling with clinical depression is more than he can bear. But he will be burdened with the knowledge that he is lying to her. Is what he is taking from her even more of a loss than death by leaving her with a lie, the opposite of intimacy?
Cleary and production designer Annie Beauchamp have created a completely believable world, with the technology so integrated into the lives of the characters that it is almost easy to forget it does not exist. Dr. Scott’s facility is almost heaven-like, in a remote setting, spacious and surrounded by nature. There is one other patient, played by Awkwafina. Cameron visits her new double as he is considering his options to see how well the process works. Both Ali and Awkwafina make their original characters and the doppelgängers just distinct enough that we can tell the difference and still buy into the idea that no one they know will be able to see it. Awkwafina and Harris give exceptionally thoughtful, complex performances, but Ali is the standout, playing a character, or rather two characters, who are quiet and introspective by nature. And yet he is able to convey all of the complicated emotions both Camerons feel as they try to navigate their strange connection.
The term “swan song” is based in the ancient myth that swans, whose honks are not very melodic, sing one beautiful song just before death. It is used to refer to an artist’s or athlete’s final appearance, something special and meaningful. As a title, it refers to Cameron’s choice as he confronts the end of his life, if not melodic, definitional about who he is, even as he contemplates expanding the notion of who he is to include something created in a lab.
Now playing in theaters and available on Apple TV+.