Ulrich Seidl’s new black comedy-drama about an aging lounge singer screens at UW Cinematheque on November 10.
Everything comes back to storage. In discussions of history and morality, what we’re really discussing is: where do I put this? Does it belong in a museum or a landfill? In an overpopulated and undernourished world, it’s an evermore urgent question. For the immaterial concerns of history, this becomes a more difficult debate. “Nobody is talking about this” is a common refrain online, and nobody seems to be sure of the “right” amount of awareness to have for something, or an appropriate amount of time to spend thinking about it. This question is at the heart of so much 20th and 21st century fiction, as we live longer and more globally-aware existences that foster endless subjects we “should” ponder. Often it’s so overwhelming that we just tune it all out, focusing instead on the ephemeral as a way to avoid moral examination. So what’s the right balance?
Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl doesn’t have an answer, but the milieu of his films provides a unique sandbox for looking at our difficulties in living with modern history. In his newest film, Rimini (2022), premiering at UW Cinematheque on Thursday, November 10, at 7 p.m., Seidl explores this plight by way of a washed-up lounge singer.
Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas) is a husk of a man, a former pop star and Austrian expat in Italy whose charm is a gradually devaluing currency. Bravo does the equivalent of a Vegas residency in the sleepy tourist town of Rimini, crooning to vacationers about the power of love from the prompts of a karaoke machine, and occasionally visiting his retired Nazi father back in Austria. Bravo’s concerts are like the world’s least helpful self-help seminars, with the singer reveling in memories of better days and breaking up sets with canned motivational phrases.
It’s a sustainable but bleak existence. When Bravo supplements his income with casual sex work with his predominantly middle-aged women fans, it feels motivated equally by money and validation. This quickly becomes unsustainable when his estranged adult daughter Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher) discovers him and demands back-pay for the many years he failed to pay child support.
Typical of Seidl’s pacing (seen most famously in his 2012-2013 Paradise trilogy), little else happens plot-wise. Seidl keeps Bravo’s career ambitions and what exactly he wants from his relationships deliberately vague. The writer-director is mostly interested in the essential character of people, and seems to get most of his kicks out of watching his subjects squirm when faced with any kind of moral or ethical conflict. In the Paradise films, these dilemmas come out of a search for meaning, with his characters looking for love via Kenyan sex tourism, or struggling to convert Muslims to Catholicism in Vienna. If Rimini’s Bravo seems any more self-actualized than the Paradise characters, it’s only because of the false enclave he finds for himself, where he’s still a kind of successful pop star.
This sort of blank stare towards contemporary pain is nothing new for Seidl, who continues in this very Austrian vein found in films by Michael Haneke and writers like Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard, in particular, seems like a touchstone, as he shares with Seidl a deep sense of frustration with the Austrian national identity. (Bernhard famously forbade the performance of his plays in Austria following his death in 1989.) Both authors struggle with the post-Holocaust identity of their country, where they clearly feel they hold a sort of hereditary responsibility for the atrocities of yore. There is no clear path forward.
Seidel repeatedly underlines Bravo’s Trump-like qualities in the film, from his melting spray tan to the cheap decal self-portraits that decorate his home with thumbs-ups and toothy grins. But Seidl retains some sympathy for this oaf, as his failures are soft. Bravo is a true buffoon who has inherited a debt he’s not prepared to atone for. He’s on the other side of luck without a family, relying on outdated music with an ever-declining fan base for his income. For Bravo, his overheated pop hits of yesterday are the cultural equivalent of a Band-Aid for a deep wound, and his struggles to create a life for himself in the remote locale of Rimini are reminiscent of a country unsure how to move beyond its past.
Tessa’s demands can’t, on a certain level, actually be met. Bravo is short on cash, and the emotional damage has been done. As Seidl suggests, this is our society’s problem writ large: a world that has been waist-deep in kitsch for multiple generations is not one equipped to reckon with its history of atrocities. Pop culture is understood as a main emotional tool, but culture corrodes along with costume jewelry.
The film’s later shift to more bluntly political symbolism feels somewhat unneeded, then, but remains potent all the same. Bravo’s cosmic “punishment,” as it were, is a simultaneous sort of Biblical punishment for both his past deeds and present-day naïveté. Bravo settles in once more, and Seidl’s interest in Rimini as a setting becomes clear: it’s a repository. The good, bad, and middlebrow all come to rest in these sleepy towns of the world, and maybe that’s the best place to store it all for now.