Cheers aren’t what you get in an Ulrich Seidl movie but let’s give one anyway for his return to fiction after a ten-year absence, with Rimini, a glisteningly dark, drily amusing character study of a man who’d be funny if he wasn’t so pitiful. Actually, he’s quite funny too.
Looking not a million miles away from Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and sharing a few of his character traits, Michael Thomas plays Richie Bravo, a former pop singer in Austria who now lives in Rimini, where a shadowy vestige of his old life still plays out, albeit largely in Richie’s head.
As Seidl’s film opens Richie is back home in Austria and re-connecting with his brother (the subject of Sparta, a sister movie) at the funeral of his mother before returning to the Italian coastal resort.
Here he inhabits a kind of “king over the water” role, stalking about the empty wintry town – clearly an analogue for Richie’s soul – singing his hits to occasional busloads of Austrian visitors in one pastel-coloured hotel conference suite or other before hitting one of the matrons who make up his adoring public for post-show sex.
Otherwise Richie’s life consists of time spent in amusement arcades and empty bars, walking along deserted beaches, past locked beach huts. Apart from the shows there is no human contact that isn’t transactional apart from his middle-aged girlfriend, who feeds his need to feel admired and has urgent sex with him on her bed while her aged mother moulders away in the room next door.
It’s a picture of relentless bleakness, but then this is Ulrich Seidl. Does the sun ever shine in his films? He started out making documentaries about subjects that seem obvious watching Rimini – one about funfairs (Fun without Limits), another about a man who is a breast fetishist (The Bosom Friend), another about human beings’ turn to pets for comfort (Animal Love). Then he edged into fiction with Models in 1999, in which four actual catalogue models played lightly fictionalised versions of themselves.
Dog Days (2001) was his breakthrough and was hailed as an extraordinary feature debut – by people who obviously don’t count documentaries as features. I first caught up with him on 2007’s Import/Export, a chilling and powerful tale of modern migratory Europe with a heavy documentary aspect to it (incredibly good, well worth seeking out).
This is where Seidl first worked with Michael Thomas, indeed it was at a restaurant after shooting one day that Seidl came up with the idea for Rimini, while watching Thomas regaling the room with a Frank Sinatra song.
The film does hang on Thomas’s performance and he delivers by the coachload. He is majestically seedy as the dyed-blond ageing crooner padding around town in his big sealskin coat and killing time until the next cohort of mature female fans arrive to validate him once more.
The film doesn’t need a plot. Watching and listening to the relentless round of self-delusion from the (obviously) alcoholic Richie is enough. But, interestingly, it gets one anyway, in the shape of an estranged daughter (Tessa Göttlicher) who arrives out of nowhere determined to get from her father the money he owes her mother, and by extension her. She’s with her Syrian boyfriend and some of his friends, and since Richie is a bit of an old racist, though he’s as self-deluding about this as everything else in his life, this could get interesting.
In the end it doesn’t, not really, but it really doesn’t matter. The portrait of the man is enough. File it alongside Toni Servillo as a pop star on his uppers in Paolo Sorrentino’s debut, One Man Up, or the mighty Gérard Depardieu ploughing the same lonely furrow in 2006’s The Singer.
Like those films, Rimini is shot through with a kind of despairing gallows humour about men who cannot adjust to changed circumstances. In many respects Richie is not a long way away from a populist politician whose seediness and message about bringing the good times back again are backed up by a catalogue of greatest hits which always get the fans applauding.
I did not make it absolutely clear that Thomas does his own singing. Think Elvis in his fat years. Big, bluesy, baleful ballads. He has a good voice and they are good songs firmly in the German Schlager tradition, which is to say plaintive Teutonic anthems about better times and lost loves. Say no more.
Rimini – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023