Film Review: Nico, 1988

“I’ve been at the bottom. I’ve been at the top. Both places are empty,” the pop star Nico once said. This intriguing art-house treatment of her life’s final act definitely features the lower regions of it.
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Nico (1938-‘88) was a singer, songwriter, model, actress and Warhol superstar, whose singing on the first Velvet Underground album guaranteed her pop immortality. She was beautiful and had some talent and even more charisma. That esconced her in the zeitgeist of the 1960s-‘70s, rubbing shoulders with Fellini, Belmondo, Serge Gainsbourg, Jim Morrison, John Cale, Iggy Pop, Philippe Garrel, Patti Smith and Alain Delon, by whom she had a son, Ari, although he always denied parentage. She was also doomed, a lifelong heroin addict, dying in Ibiza at the age of 49 when she was struck down by a heart attack while riding a motorcycle.

A fascinating life, indeed, but you will learn very little of it in Susanna Nicciarelli’s Nico, 1988. The film mainly focuses on the last two years of Nico’s life, when she was on a European tour marked by disasters, still singing in clubs for her supper—and also for smack. She had lost all cherubic vestiges of her fashion-model beauty once extolled by Chanel herself. Her behavior wasn’t any prettier; she was monstrously willful and entitled and often a drugged-out mess. There’s a certain ghoulishness afoot here, akin to the spate of films and plays dealing with Judy Garland’s final, tragically weakened and addictive years, stemming from a fascination with idols not at their peak but once they’ve crashed and burned.

Luckily, cast in the role of Nico—whose real name was Christa, which she preferred to be called—is eminent Danish veteran actress Trine Dyrholm, who herself has been performing since she was a child. While not physically resembling Nico, she nevertheless uncannily captures her damaged yet deeply human essence. Imperious as an empress even when totally out of it in the most sordid dives, Dyrholm fully immerses herself in the iconic legend that was Nico, at the same time investing her with so much desperately pulsing life—a true artist portraying another—that it uplifts what could have been a very dreary slog of a movie.

Nothing much happens in the film apart from a lot of chat (much of its bickering) between Nico and her long-suffering but besotted manager (John Gordon Sinclair). But Nico, 1988 really comes alive when Dyrholm sings in the sepulchral, Teutonic-accented near-monotone that would prove to be highly influential to the point of cliché, making Nico perhaps the mother of Goth. Rights, one would imagine, prevented the use of Nico’s actual songs, but, for once, the pastiches composed in lieu of them work beautifully.