Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, whose latest feature “Rimini” premieres Feb. 11 in the main competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is winding down production on his next film, Variety can reveal.
“Sparta” is a companion piece to Seidl’s competition entry and revolves around the brother of that film’s protagonist, the washed-up singer Richie Bravo. “[‘Rimini’] actually originated as a much larger story,” the director told Variety. “This original story that I started writing was about the two brothers and their father.” Though Seidl wouldn’t share further details about the plot of “Sparta,” he noted that “both protagonists are caught up by their past.”
Marking the director’s return to the Berlinale’s main competition for the first time since 2013’s “Paradise: Hope,” “Rimini” is the story of a faded middle-aged crooner trying to make ends meet in the titular Italian resort town during a bleak, blustery off-season. His precarious world is suddenly turned upside down with the arrival of a figure from his past.
The film, which is being sold by Coproduction Office, offers a candid portrait of “a man whose time has passed, and who’s trying desperately to hold on, trying desperately to remain relevant and a figure of adulation,” says Seidl. “But he’s failed at that. He’s a has-been and his time is up.”
Lead actor Michael Thomas, who starred in Seidl’s 2007 Cannes competition selection “Import Export,” fully inhabits the role of the bearish Bravo, trudging through the elements from one hotel foyer performance to the next and dialling up his schmaltzy charms as he sings to — and beds — admirers of a certain age.
Sex — explicit, full-frontal, ungainly sex, so often the case in Seidl’s work — plays a central role in the film. “Richie deep down is an extremely lonely person. He’s struggling with loneliness. That’s also the case with the so-called older women who pay him for sexual services,” the director says. “They’re also extremely lonely, and the sexuality that’s depicted in the film, often in very raw form, it shows how these characters are all clinging to sexuality…as a way out of their loneliness.”
As in previous features, Seidl doesn’t shy away from the physical reality of his performers; the camera lingers on bodies of all ages, shapes and sizes. “I think that this image of a certain type of beauty is imposed on us, and it’s a type of beauty that is impossible for us to escape from,” he says. “In my films I’m trying to avoid that dictatorship of a certain kind of beauty. I want to depict bodies as they are. I think that the media, in trying to impose this rigid, limited type of beauty, is imposing a kind of censorship.”
As with other boundary-pushing provocateurs like Lars von Trier or his Austrian compatriot Michael Haneke, Seidl is often criticized for his unflinching gaze; many of his films have a cold rigor his critics see as morally superior or inhumane. Even his admirers don’t entirely know what to do with him.
In praising the Austrian auteur’s work, Werner Herzog noted that “never before in cinema have I been able to look straight into hell,” while John Waters — a devoted fan — once said: “No one is safe from Ulrich Seidl.” Of his 2012 Cannes competition player “Paradise: Love,” Variety’s Leslie Felperin wrote: “Repulsive and sublimely beautiful, arguably celebratory and damning of its characters, it’s hideous and masterful all at once, ‘Salo’ with sunburn.”
“Rimini” is perhaps softer around the edges, approaching its hangdog star with tenderness, pathos and sympathy. (The director’s answer to the question posed by his protagonist to a female companion — “Do you think Richie Bravo is someone deserving of being loved?” — would likely be an emphatic ‘yes.’) In spite of the film’s wintry surface, Seidl insists there is a warm heart beating just below.
“For me, it was essential from the beginning that we spectators find Richie Bravo sympathetic. We have to like him, despite the fact that he’s obviously an alcoholic, despite the fact that he survives by sexually servicing older women, that that’s how he earns part of his income. The fact that he’s a compulsive gambler,” Seidl says. “Despite all those aspects, we have to find that he’s likable. And we also have the sense that he’s desperately searching to get a hold on his life, to get control over his life.”
As a filmmaker who rose to prominence on the strength of acclaimed documentaries such as “Animal Love” and “Jesus, You Know,” Seidl approaches his subjects with an unfettered gaze. His camerawork is steady. He dares the audience to look away.
“In [my films] I’m trying to look at things that society, that mainstream media generally doesn’t want us to look at,” he says. “So much of our world is made up of images. We’re being sold images, but images that are completely false images that have nothing to do with our lives, that don’t represent us.”
He continues: “We’re being sold a form of beauty that doesn’t correspond to who 90% of us are, and which isn’t true. Nonetheless, that’s imposed on us. We’re told that this is the true beauty, this is what we should be aspiring to. I think that beauty may lie elsewhere and I’m seeking out that beauty in other forms.”