The Pietà and The Swan

Amber Noel

Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for The Swan.

In the winter of 2021, I found myself in St. Peter’s Basilica standing slack-jawed in front of Michelangelo’s La Pietà, the famous sculpture of Mary grieving over the body of her son, Jesus. A magnificent yet subtle piece of art, La Pietà invited me to look carefully at a familiar story. Mary opens her hands in grief and shock, but also opened them to me, as if to say, “And you—what do you make of this?”

At the end of Wes Anderson’s new short film The Swan, I found myself thinking of La Pietà. The movie’s final words, “My darling boy, what’s happened to you?,” beg the comparison. But the two artworks are also engaged in a similar kind of storytelling. The Swan, like Anderson’s three other films in his recently released series of shorts, all available on Netflix, is based very precisely (and what does Anderson do that’s not precise?) on a Roald Dahl short story. The decision to translate a story to film is an homage, but also a creative opportunity, similar to that of La Pietà. The film, like all visual art that interprets a story, draws out of the original text latent interpretive, interactive possibilities. Anderson’s sensitive guidance through The Swan also draws out, intentional or not, deeply moving parallels between the story of Jesus’ death and the tragic triumph of The Swan’s main character, Peter Watson.

Peter’s Via Dolorosa

The Swan begins with two English boys, Ernie and Raymond, out to see what they can kill with Ernie’s new rifle. Neither boy is pictured; rather, both are voiced by the onscreen narrator (Rupert Friend), who looks directly into the camera. “Cripes!” he exclaims in the voice of Raymond. “We can have some fun with that!” Despite Friend’s energy, his comic impersonations of the boys’ voices, and our readiness to laugh, we feel that in Anderson’s highly wrought style, a prophetic shadow looms. We’re told it’s May, with flowers blooming. Yet we find ourselves in a muted, autumnal palette, under an overcast sky. We also find ourselves between tight, tall hedgerows—literally hedged in. The leaves are brown, not flowering. Then the boys spy their neighbor, Peter Watson (Asa Jennings), a “frail . . . polite” boy, watching birds alone, in quiet contemplation, like Jesus in Gethsemane, with no warning, no gun.

The camera and art direction arrest and bind us, as the bullies do Peter (“Stick ‘em up!”) and the mob does Jesus. They take us, along with the narrator and Peter, from one hemmed-in situation to another: between close walls of hay bales, wheat, and bulrushes. About midway through the story, we are even lying with Peter between the rails of train tracks, where the bullies have tied him, and then under the belly of the rushing train. Anderson uses his penchant for perfectly perpendicular framing to create paths and tracks for us all along the way, from garden to kangaroo court to the tree where Peter and his enemies will come to the crux of their conflict.

There is also, for us, a sense of being taken, as Peter is taken, against our will along this path of progressive suffering. The rapid, Andersonian line delivery also carries us in a dramatic momentum. The bullies’ torments—and our dread—get more intense as we walk on. Like Jesus, Peter Watson walks a Via Dolorosa—a road of sorrows.

The Ambiguous Viewer

We seem at first to be merely observers. But then, Friends’ narrator looks into the camera and tells us, “My name is Peter Watson.” (This is a poignant addition of Anderson’s.) Friend holds us in an earnest, intense gaze, recalling Pilate’s presentation of Jesus at his sentencing: “Here is the man!” As with La Pietà, Anderson is bending the fourth wall, asking for a personal response to what we’re watching.

The feeling intensifies later, after Peter has been forced to wear the severed wings of a swan that the bullies have shot and told to climb up into a tall willow tree. When he jumps, the screen goes dark for a moment and we suddenly find ourselves before the gaze of Roald Dahl himself (Ralph Fiennes). Dahl gently takes the role of narrator from the fallen Peter; holding our eyes, he delivers the end of the story. We enter a hushed, Holy Saturday (the day after Good Friday), where we are invited to “look on . . . the one they have pierced.”

Are we implicated in this tragedy? The right answer is “Yes.” But The Swan helps us not to rush our Sunday-school answers. When Peter is tied between the train tracks, we’re behind the camera, seeing through Peter’s eyes: his blue sneakers, sticking up helplessly into the sky. While the train rushes over, “with a tearing, screaming wind,” we are beside Peter. When the bullies spy the swan they will kill, we’re looking through the stolen binoculars. And when they send Peter high into a tree with the poor bird’s wings tied to his shoulders, we are at the foot of the tree with the bullies. Finally, when Peter’s sufferings are over, when his mother finds him fallen from the sky, we are with her, looking out of her kitchen window.

Are we the women of Jerusalem who weep over this pierced boy? Or are we the mocking crowds? Are we Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross, or one of the thieves who suffered beside him? Are we the soldiers or are we Mary? Yes.

Dignity and Indignation

Though Peter doesn’t die for his tormentors, as Jesus did, we see in him a Christlike combination of humble dignity and anger at injustice.

As Peter, the young Jennings keeps his movements controlled, his face resolved. Similarly, Friend keeps his descriptions of Peter quiet: “He was not afraid, but he knew better than to play the fool.” Just as Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” and “endured the cross, scorning its shame,” Peter keeps his peace.

There comes a moment, however, when Peter loses his cool and reveals the bullies’ condemnation of themselves. When they decide to kill the swan as it sits on its nest, Peter says they can’t. This is a bird sanctuary, he explains, and the swan likely has little cygnets. Here, Friend’s performance is suddenly loud and passionate. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets!” we might hear, recalling Luke 13:34. “How I have longed to gather your children, like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings . . .”

When Peter moves offscreen to “tenderly” collect the dead swan, he also hides the cygnets. He re-emerges, dressed all in black—the color of death, judgment, and authority. “His eyes, still wet with tears, were blazing with fury,” we’re told. But the black fabric also glimmers with light. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” can only come as a response of radical mercy if the anger of a righteous judge is justified.

Vulnerable Victory

We are told by the Apostle Paul and other interpreters of Christ’s death that his worst moment was his victory. As the bullies force Peter to cut off the dead swan’s wings and tie them to his own shoulders, Friend brings his arms up and out in a cruciform posture, but also in a gesture of flight, victory, and freedom, even as he narrates the opposite: “. . . the enormous, limp, slightly bloodied wings dangling grotesquely at his sides.”

Some see a criminal on the cross. Others see an innocent man. But really, it is the King of Kings. Stranded in the tree, bleeding from a gunshot wound, Peter seems to see something of this hidden reality: “It came to him suddenly that he was going to win.” A heavenly light shines over the lake. Peter jumps toward it, wings spread, and flies home. Unlike Christ, Peter does not choose to become vulnerable. He just is: skinny, young, sensitive, a “twerp.” But in the adult Peter’s blue sneakers, Friend’s wide blue eyes, the child Peter’s smallness framed against the willow tree, and in Peter’s final victory, we see what God has promised to do and has done through Jesus: the meek will inherit the earth. The vulnerable will win.

And here we return to La Pietà. Peter’s mother sees him fall from the sky. The adult Peter lies on the grass, still, his cheek against the earth like Francisco de Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei. “She dropped to her knees beside the small, crumpled figure of her only son,” we’re told. “‘My darling!’ she cried, ‘My darling boy! What’s happened to you?’”

La Pietà is an imagined culmination to the passion and death of Jesus, just as a mother’s shock and sorrow is the culmination of The Swan. Like much of Anderson’s work, The Swan echoes the truth and complexity of the gospel through layered images and a rich cast of characters. Like the gospel writers, like the Mary of La Pietà, they beckon to us as if to say, “And you—what do you make of this?”

Michelangelo’s La Pietà.

Topics: Movies