There’s bleak, there’s despairing, and then there is Ulrich Seidl, Austrian chronicler of the marginal, the miserable and plain mad. If there are Nazis still worshipping Hitler in some rural basement, Seidl will dig them out. Closet religious fanatics, marriages mired in cruelty, depraved things respectable people do on holiday that nobody at home will know about: Ulrich Seidl sets them out for all to see. Perhaps the Rimini director/co-writer is not so much bleak as relentlessly clear-eyed.
Rimini in winter, however — now there’s bleakness for you. A brash, crowded resort over the summer season, Rimini in winter seems to be perpetually lashed by sea storms or covered in deep snow. Even so, there are a few hotels still open for the budget bus tours that keep on coming. Those German pensioners might not be able to sit on the beach, but at least there is entertainment in the portly form of Ricky Bravo (Michael Thomas), a lounge singer who looks as if he has drunk several bars dry between sets.
Ricky has a good, if permanently sozzled, heart. We first see him reunited with his brother in Vienna on the eve of their mother’s funeral in a house full of animal trophies; they get drunk and shoot bottles to bond. Their father is in a nursing home, with such advanced dementia he can no longer put together a sentence. Ricky jollies him along. When he starts singing the Nazi marching songs of his youth, Ricky simply sings one of his Italian love songs to drown him out. Seidl knows his suburban fascists and can paint them with just a couple of strokes; you see immediately how things have been.
It’s not much of a living singing in one-star hotel bars, but Ricky’s needs are few; he can rent his house out to tourists and sleep in one of the boarded-up hotels to make a bit extra. And there are the ladies, of course. The aging women whose hands he pats as he sashays between tables, belting out avowals of eternal love, all adore him; the more sprightly are happy to pay for his sexual services.
It doesn’t feel like prostitution, exactly. He is sweet to them, telling them how hot they are, how he has been dreaming of each one of them. He might even mean it; these women are part of his life as much as he is an adventure in theirs. Seidl’s icy gaze never wavers, but it isn’t cruel or exploitative. Which is more than can be said of Tessa (Tessa Gottlicher), a damaged young woman who starts appearing at his gigs not long after his trip back to Vienna. She is furious with him. She is entitled to her fury, but she clearly feels entitled to a good deal more than that. Ricky is helpless in the face of so much rage. He’s a weak man. That’s always been his problem.
Ulrich Seidl’s films are not so much an acquired taste as an inherent one. You’re the kind of person who warms to his frigidity or you aren’t. Having found his subject in Ricky Bravo and his perfect incarnation in Michael Thomas – an actor so entirely comfortable in his abundance of skin that this story often feels like a documentary – he is content merely to stay with him, observing and recording his amiably unsuccessful life. He is long on scenes of walks through gray blizzards and short on plot, which is exactly what Seidl enthusiasts expect of him. And while he is stern with his subjects, holding them under the light for as long as it takes to see all their flaws, he makes sure we also see that in the end, they are only human.
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