A little girl stands on the outskirts of Berlin and watches from a distance as orange fire melts the city into a shapeless candied glow. Twenty years later, she reappears as a blonde chanteuse in Andy Warhol’s New York City, her stage name attached to one of the most influential records in the history of popular music. Twenty years after that, she sits in a Manchester radio station, patchy and strung out and shutting down any questions about her stint with The Velvet Underground — she’ll be dead in two years, but it looks as if she’s already decomposing.
The first 90 seconds of Susanna Nicchiarelli’s gloomy and grounded biopic visit all three of these periods (though the rest of it is almost exclusively set in the last one), “Nico, 1988” introducing its subject as someone who can’t extricate her present from her past. Several decades into a tortured and compelling solo career, and everything she does is still overshadowed by the one thing she did. Lead vocals on there songs, some mindless tambourine shaking on the others, and a short lifetime of telling people not to call her “Lou Reed’s femme fatale.” Nobody even mentions that she was in “La Dolce Vita”!
A defiantly anti-dramatic chronicle of the European tour that turned out to be Nico’s last, Nicchiarelli’s film is not the story of a woman who’s sad to be in her forties — if anything, it’s the story of a woman who’s so happy to be invisible that she’s done everything in her power to speed up the process. Convincingly reanimated by the great Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, this Nico has bags under her eyes and bruises around the needle holes in her feet. Her singing voice is a hollow drone, and her speaking voice is inflected with an almost senile rudeness. She’s the oldest 47-year-old in world. She refuses to look backwards, she gives herself no reason to look forwards, and heroin is the only thing that seems to keep her in the moment. “I really don’t care about music anymore,” she announces at one point. “I’ve been on the top, I’ve been on the bottom — both places are empty.”
“Nico, 1988” finds its namesake squarely in the middle, and charts her escape from a scale where everything is measured in highs and lows, ups and downs. As shapeless and discordant as many of the musician’s final recordings, the film shambles from one tour stop to the next, happy to gawp at Nico as she slouches towards some kind of meaning in her life before it’s too late.
Hitting the road with her manager (a winsome John Gordon Sinclair) and a ragtag band of “amateur junkies” (highlighted by “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” star Anamaria Marinca), Nico sings her way across Europe, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. Most scenes are disconnected from the next like two songs on a record, a late-night flirtation with an Italian landlord followed by a narrow escape from the police in communist Prague.
There’s a deliberate opaqueness at work, as though Nicchiarelli believes it would be dishonest — or even disrespectful — to render Nico’s singular life in more comprehendible terms. She might be right. At the very least, there’s something to be said for a biopic that doesn’t feel a need to fill in the blank spaces of its subject’s Wikipedia page, or shape their defining moments into a clear trajectory (Nicchiarelli has fun mocking genre conventions, especially with an expository voiceover track that only speaks in the legalese of a custody hearing). Thanks to the fleshed out messiness of Dyrholm’s performance, and how eerily the former Eurovision contestant brings Nico back to life whenever she sings, the movie is able to support the sketchiness of its approach.
In fact, it flows best as an egotistic slipstream, the thin supporting characters only notable when they’re reduced to collateral damage. That’s even true of Nico’s troubled son (Sandor Funtek), a drug-addled lovechild from her affair with Alain Delon. The film never figures out what to do with him, but their relationship makes for its most memorable moment, as the mother wordlessly hands her son a wet cigarette that tastes of the hope and regret between them. It’s only during the rushed final act that the film starts to pull apart at the seams, the rest of it boxed up by the square “Academy” aspect ratio, bound together in Crystel Fournier’s Cold War cinematography, and welded shut by the dry heat of Nicchiarelli’s humor (which even reduces Nico’s rumored anti-semitic streak into a cheap punchline rather than wrestle with it in a meaningful way).
But “Nico, 1988” is never going to be confused for a hagiography. It’s too unresolved, too contradictory — only hopeful in its final defeat. Nico once said, “I have a habit of leaving places at the wrong time, just when something big may have happened for me,” but there’s something beautiful and vaguely redemptive to the way Nicchiarelli’s film gives the singer one last chance to change her ways.
“Nico, 1988” had its American premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Magnolia will release the film in the United States this summer.