With his stringy blond locks, his face puffy from the effects of routine boozing, Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas), the lounge-singer protagonist of Ulrich Seidl’s “Rimini,” recalls Mickey Rourke’s aging brawler in “The Wrestler,” Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 drama. Richie is also miserable, clutching the memory of his past glory as an Austrian celebrity; now, he’s stuck in the gloomy Italian resort town of Rimini, where he performs power ballads for his geriatric fans, all German tourists, in tacky hotel conference rooms. Broke, he sleeps with some of these same adoring fans for extra dough.
Seidl doesn’t have much in common with Aronofsky; “Rimini,” especially next to the hokey sentimentality of “The Wrestler,” is as severe as the titular coastal town’s foggy, frostbitten climate. Richie, for all his debonair charms, is not a “good” person, and Seidl isn’t interested in redeeming him, either.
“Rimini” was conceived as part of a two-film project with the second installment, “Sparta,” about Richie’s younger brother, a nonpracticing pedophile who opens a summer camp for young boys in rural Romania. Last fall, a Der Spiegel report accused the director of subjecting nonprofessional child actors in “Sparta” to upsetting situations in his quest for authenticity. Seidl has dismissed these allegations, saying that the media manipulated the facts to create a more scandalous story, and adding that the children’s parents’ gave their consent. Upon publication of the Der Spiegel article, the world premiere of “Sparta” at the Toronto International Film Festival was canceled, though it went on to screen throughout Europe, where it will be theatrically released over the coming months.
The news, however, may seem predictable given the filmmaker’s artistic preoccupations. His approach hews close to other European provocateurs like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier — and Seidl’s films, like “Import/Export” (2007) and the “Paradise” trilogy (which concluded in 2013), are tales of cruelty and exploitation, unflinchingly presenting bleak, often perverse scenarios. For Seidl, the modern world is rotten at its core, anchored to a history of violence that perpetuates more violence. When Richie visits his father, who has dementia, the two hum their favorite tunes — the son, his most popular love song; the father, a Nazi jingle.
Like Rourke’s Randy, Bravo also reconnects with his estranged daughter, Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher), though she’s not interested in sharing sob stories over dinner. She wants cash, and she doesn’t care about the ethics of swindling her father — just as he doesn’t care about stealing from and blackmailing the elderly women drawn to his heartthrob act, and just as Seidl himself doesn’t care about using others as grist for the mill of his art practice. Relationships are transactional, if not outright phony.
“Rimini” is grim, for sure, but there’s also something about its surface pleasures — its chintzy décor — that I find both captivating and disturbing. Seidl punctuates the drama with Richie’s live performances, his hulking body, dressed in dazzling blazers and fur coats, smack in the middle of the screen and framed by rainbow party streamers, pastel walls and fluorescent lights. Richie’s home is essentially a museum stocked with relics from the height of his fame (cardboard cutouts, platinum records, concert ads), a setup that makes for an attractive rental home — yet another way to milk his fans. Seidl’s penchant for flat, symmetrical images makes these settings look like playhouses and Richie look like yesteryear’s novelty figurine.
We know there’s great tragedy and ugliness behind the smoke and mirrors, but we watch in amusement nonetheless. Sinisterly, Seidl reminds us how easy it is to turn people into objects for the taking.
Not rated. In German, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. In theaters.