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  • Reviewed from the 2022 Berlinale.

The alluring powers of cheap music and contrived charisma are uncorked to full sensory effect in this mesmerising, ultra-vivid portrait of Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas), a Viennese singer of schlager music, a fusion of romantic balladry, 80s synth-pop, Germanic stentorian vocalese and karaoke beats.

Richie is a corsetted, ageing and fading demi-idol yet he strives manfully to maintain his magnetism for the coach parties of elderly German-speaking ladies who make up his adoring public in out-of-season seaside Italy. A monument to sincere self-pity, Richie puts sweat, soul and saccharine into every throb of heartbreak as he serenades his pensioner fans in his gold jumpsuit, cheap jewellery and straggly blonde hair in front of a glittering backdrop, before stepping forward to flirt up close with a patter as oleaginous as his smile. In-between-times, he wanders about town in a superbly repulsive shimmering sealskin coat and snakeskin cowboy boots, killing time with booze.

It’s winter in Rimini, which means frost, mist and even snow inhabit the beach and shroud the largely deserted hotels. There are faceless, ignored immigrants asleep or hunched low at the edges of scenes as if waiting for their moment. Richie and his brother Ewald (Georg Friedrich in a brief cameo of a character earmarked to be the subject of Sparta, a future Seidl film) have just buried their mother and Richie’s father Ekkard (Hans Michal Rehberg) is in a home suffering from a form of dementia that has him singing old Hitler Youth anthems as he shuffles about not knowing where he’s going.

After one performance, Richie, surprised to see a young woman hanging round in the bar, moves in with his usual smarm but finds he’s talking to Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher), the daughter he abandoned with her mother when she was just a child. She’s after €30,000 of back-pay child support to set her and her muslim boyfriend up and won’t take pathos or regret for an answer.

Michael Thomas gave a horribly convincing performance of woman-humiliation as a lowlife entrepreneur in Seidl’s Import/Export (2007), which Seidl has said gave him the idea for this film. Here, though, Thomas is all sensitivity with the women fans his character sleeps with, even if he does it for a small fee.

Where Xavier Giannoli’s similarly themed The Singer (2006) had Gerard Depardieu retain some of his dignity as a regional crooner, Seidl and his co-screenwriter Veronika Franz here find poignancy in the absence of dignity. If it was inevitable that the baby boom generation would depict sex scenes featuring older characters, you can at least trust Seidl to do them honestly, without compromise, collapsed flesh and all. The actorly bravery here extends particularly to Claudia Martini, who plays his main gigolo client Annie, resplendent in fishnet tights, who grabs sex sessions with Richie as a break from tending to her dying mother. It’s a film where such darkly ironic contrasts are often in play.

Rimini’s painstaking construction of Richie Bravo’s cheesy style is so complete it arguably extends to a wider questioning of what good taste is. Despite its quease-inducing trappings, Rimini is a beautiful film, by which I mean that every shot by Wolfgang Thaler – Seidl’s regular cinematographer – achieves a perfection of theme that’s often gorgeous, as does the production design, adding other layers of fake romanticism through images of nature as 2D wallpaper.

The real beach looks stunning in the mist, and the temporarily abandoned huts and hotels provide that wonderful sense of grace wandering around such semi-deserted places somehow always brings. In a way, Richie himself is a beautiful melancholy monster of self-ignorance, a kind of anti-Big Lebowski. However gruelling you may find his persona and music (the songs were kitsch-perfectly written for the film by Fritz Ostermayer and Herwig Zamernik) there’s no brooking the passion of his singing.

Seidl, of course, makes us work for our enjoyment, constantly needling our expected snobbery towards the music. The playing of Schubert’s ‘Gute Nacht’ at one point perhaps illuminates that, in terms of its emotional effect on audiences, there’s not such a big gap between Schubert and schlager. But Seidl does like to overstate his case. You could trim at least one production number without necessarily damaging this film’s aesthetic force. Whether Richie the tragic buffoon deserves the sympathy he craves is put in doubt throughout the film but particularly via his barely muffled Islamophobia. Eventually Tessa, her boyfriend and the ignored immigrants do get their moment, but that’s best left unspoiled and unrevealed here.