The music made by songwriter-composer Nico in the two decades after her brief association with The Velvet Underground tended toward drone and plod, toward a Teutonic bluntness and a gothic mournfulness, its beat as flat as her bleat. On occasion, her work echoed the lullaby delicacy of the songs Lou Reed wrote for her, among them “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” But Nico’s work, as Nico would be the first to tell you, was not for everyone — which, of course, makes it mean all the more to those of us who love it.
“I’m very selective of my audience,” Trine Dyrholm’s Nico declares to an interviewer late in Nico, 1988, writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s precise, piercing study of the star’s last years. The statement is half put-on justification, something like what the teen Nico fans I knew during the years the film is set might say to explain the tininess of our groups of friends. But there’s truth in it, too: Nico wouldn’t and couldn’t change her art, her sound, herself even if she had wanted to. Reed wrote for her the question “And what costume shall the poor girl wear to all tomorrow’s parties?” Nicchiarelli’s film, the rare biographical picture to advance a critical argument, insists that Nico, born Christa Päffgen, wore no costume: By the ’80s, a lifetime removed from her modeling career and the Factory scene, Nico and her art had become one. Nico, 1988 shows us the star pouring all her pain and exuberance into music that she doesn’t care whether you take or leave. She even wants to leave it herself, toward the end, when the idea comes to her that she might work in a flower shop instead — that she might spend her days around life. But she can’t. She might insist that some acquaintances call her Christa, but she’s too Nico not to be Nico.
Like much of Nico’s music, Nicchiarelli’s film is a funeral march, trudging toward the oblivion hinted at by the title. Most of Nico, 1988 takes place two years before its subject’s death, in 1986, when a now raven-haired Nico (played with an inquisitive weariness by the excellent Dyrholm) tours Europe with a band of amateur musicians desperate for gigs. Some also are desperate for their next fix. We first see their leader shoot up in Manchester, England, while being shown a one-bedroom flat she’ll be renting. Nico asks to use the restroom, and then, alone, pulls out the microphone of the tape recorder she carries everywhere and studies the room’s ambiance. Apparently satisfied, she pulls a needle from her pack, taps it, then jabs it into her ankle.
At its best, Nicchiarelli’s film, which is based on accounts from people who know Nico, summons up the presence of its subject, studying her behavior, allowing her her mysteries. What is she listening for on that recorder? When she nods off, heroin pulsing through her, what does she dream of? What does she make of the scraggly crowds of leathered outcasts who attend her shows? Nicchiarelli does offer some explanations, through flashbacks often less convincing than the film’s ’80s present. As the smack hits, we see a baby crying in a hospital, then a vision of Nico’s golden ’60s self, the woman thought of as the femme fatale and the Chelsea girl. Later, crashing in the home of a booking agent who wouldn’t spring for a hotel for the band, Nico declares that she misses her son, the boy she had too young, before she’d had a chance to invent herself — before she had become Nico.
That’s blunt, but so is a parent’s pain. Nicchiarelli doesn’t belabor her subject’s regrets, and she never suggests that there’s one key to understanding Nico’s heart. And instead of setting up a sentimental reunion, Nico’s regrets push the film toward tragedy. We meet the handsome young son (Sandor Funtek) in a French rehab hospital. And we wince when Nico suggests that when he’s released, they might make up for lost time by him coming on tour with her — the last thing a recovering addict should do. He joins her on the next tour, in 1987.
Much of the film covers life on the road in the days before the collapse of the Soviet empire. It’s a blur of cramped cars, school dormitories, small crowds and even smaller triumphs and humiliations. The show must go on, which means heroin must be secured and border guards must be satisfied. Sometimes the show seems meaningless, and she yells at the band and storms offstage; sometimes, like in an underground club in a school in Prague, the show seems like an urgent cry of freedom itself. (Dyrholm’s furious power in the best concert sequences have more fire than I’ve ever heard from the real Nico.) She’s persistently interviewed by clueless journalists who only know her VU work; she pretends not to notice that the manager (John Gordon Sinclair) with whom she occasionally sleeps is desperately in love with her.
Curiously, movingly, in the final scenes, the sense that we’re treading grimly toward her death lightens, just a bit. Having cleaned herself up, Nico at times seems to enjoy being Nico, and Dyrholm even dares a smile. Her performance works as an impersonation — her amused utterances sound a lot like the real Nico’s announcement, after an exquisite 1983 performance of “Orly Flight,” that “I’m not a very good piano player” — but succeeds most as an investigation, even a summation. Nico, 1988 offers all I want from this kind of movie: a sense of what time with someone unknowable might have been like.