Rimini, Ulrich Seidl’s first fictional feature since completing the “Paradise” trilogy back in 2013, is held together by a wonderful performance from Michael Thomas as Richie Bravo, an aging schlager singer scraping together a living at an Italian seaside resort. Even through the depths of winter, he keeps plugging away, playing to rich German and Austrian pensioners as they visit. On the side, Richie acts as a gigolo for some of his lonelier clientele. His routine is disturbed at first by the death of his mother, an inciting incident that returns the protagonist to his home village in Austria, where he reunites with his estranged daughter and faces questions about child support backpay.
Thomas’ performance is the heart and soul of Rimini, bringing warmth and empathy to a sodden and complex character. Richie, with dyed blond locks reminiscent of Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), has never been cool but steadfastly refuses to admit it (the two films would make a great double bill). He plays the kind of cheap, ultra-sentimental schlager, associated with cheesiness so strong that you can’t wash it out, existing in a peculiar, marginal world. But Richie keeps schlepping away — it’s clear that he loves the work, even if he wishes it could be a bit more glamorous, but it at least allows him to stay in a perpetual adolescence. Richie also has a capacity to be a real dick: he is frequently casually xenophobic (he shies away from the homeless migrants from Africa and the Middle East dotted around the town), and he is completely oblivious as to why his daughter might be quite angry at his absence during her upbringing. Still, Thomas finds a way to balance his character’s easy charm and good humor alongside uglier elements. It’s a truly multi-faceted performance.
The same applies to many of the supporting characters in Rimini. The ladies who peruse Richie’s other services, such as regular customer Annie (Claudia Martini), and Emmi (Inge Maux), the latter of whom rents out the singer’s house on Airbnb to live out her fangirl fantasy, are given sensual depth and emotional honesty by the respective performers. It’s rare enough to see older female desire depicted at all on screen, let alone in this much depth in a story that isn’t principally about them. Martini and Maux both play their roles with a real sense of melancholia. It’s not desperation, but something a bit more nuanced — sadness, nostalgia, good humor — something with all of this and everything in between.
Annie, for example, has to bring her ailing, dying mother with, putting the woman up in the room next door. Annie’s groans distract Richie during sex, and it’s a painful reminder of the tricks nature pulls on us as we grow older, an ever-greater set of obstacles being thrown in our way to drag us away from sexual desire. The actors are unashamed of their bodies — they are aged and creaking, but still worth loving and becoming intimate with. These performances give so much to Rimini and to the director. I don’t understand how Seidl is unable to give any of that love back to the actors.
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Rimini is shot in the style that is typical of Seidl’s previous work. Almost everything is mid or long-shot. The camera is usually static, not moving much. Many of the scenes are framed as tableaux, with distinct, symmetrical compositions. Rimini, outdoors in the winter, is shot as a particularly grim place. Is there anything as depressing as a beachfront resort at wintertime? The sky is perpetually overcast, the sand muddy, and when the fog rolls in it seems to suffocate the actors. But all this serves to drive a distance between the audience and the characters.
The harsh lighting that Seidl prefers gives everything in Rimini a layer of artifice, and the symmetrical compositions give everything an air of the absurd and the ironic. It forces a wedge between the performance and the audience. It is as if the actors understand that their sexual desires are natural, healthy and nothing to be ashamed of, but Seidl’s camera sees it as repulsive and ghastly. In the harsh light of Seidl’s microsope, Richie burns away. The camera is pitiless.
Rimini reads at times as if Seidl believes that Richie’s ailments are down to him being an aging schalger singer in a run-down seaside resort, ignoring the fact that there’s a concrete set of structural economic elements that pushed the man all the way to this purgatorial world’s edge, even if the character himself is clearly guilty of some bad choices along the way. In positioning his camera with a God’s Eye view of the man’s life, Seidl shows some similarities with the Dardenne brothers who, although their camera is much more mobile, also showcase some of that same pitilessness. It reproduces in itself a kind of liberal, milquetoast and bourgeois Euro-socialism, which is predicated on a moralistic view of the poor and marginalized: the camera sees them as victims of their own behavior to be saved and judged by higher powers.
Perhaps the simplest way of describing how this is enacted in Rimini would be to see how Seidl presents schlager music: this principally German form of light pop music is often assosciated with cheap, cheesy instrumentation and schmaltzy ballads. It’s regional European variations all tend to be very popular with the older folk of that country, but it is nearly always scoffed at as low art, similar in popular imagination to country music in the United States. And that is too how Seidl sees it — as disposable, bizarre, outdated pop culture. But it’s also deeply sincere, sentimental stuff, with performers wearing their hearts on their sleeve and being utterly unashamed to be “uncool” in the eyes of high culture. And what’s wrong with that?
By dint of the fact that Rimini showcases such a vast gulf between performance and direction, Seidl’s return to fictional filmmaking is, if nothing else, hugely interesting. At a Berlinale festival where much this year tends towards this social realist Mitteleuropan middle ground, that’s at least welcome.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.