Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 is a bit mis-titled, given that only the very end of the film is set in that last year of the famous German singer’s life. It’s more Nico, 1986, as the majority of that film documents her tour across Europe in support of what would ultimately turn out to be her last album, 1985’s Camera Obscura.
At this point, Nico (portrayed by the stunning Trine Dyrholm), is far from the Warhol icon that she once was, back when she palled around with Lou Reed and the rest of The Velvet Underground, having been ravaged by a now-decades long heroin addiction and years of constant touring. She’s puffy and pale underneath her black bangs, always looking tired, though her brilliant voice, cold personality and quick wit have managed to endure the slings and arrows of her fall from fame. Living in Manchester (of which she tells an interviewer early on in the film that she likes it because it reminds her of “Berlin, right after the war”) and nursing a ton of pain — mainly centered around her troubled son Ari (Sandor Funtek) — she heads out on that tour just not giving a fuck how people see her, to her benefit and detriment. It’s an exhilarating and depressing experience, and one well worth seeking out.
Nicchiarelli, an actor turned filmmaker, has a keen eye for the period and true skill at coaxing solid work from her actors. The film’s 4:3 aspect ratio and its aesthetic are the result of a merger of its two main periods: ’60s New York photographed in 16mm haze, captured in archival footage of the Factory’s heyday, and ’80s British television, with its stark and darkened colors that compliment our main character’s depression well enough. It’s glumly melancholy in all of the right ways, and its stunning intro, in which a lot of that archival footage is used and put to the sounds of a Buckley-esque version of Nico’s classic take on the Jackson Browne song “These Days” sets the tone of what’s to come perfectly.
Dyrholm plays well into this atmosphere, offering what is something a bit more potent and exploitative than your typical “diva at the end” movie, as she’s consumed with regret about having squandered the things that have actually mattered in the pursuit of ephemeral fame. It helps that the actor has the singer’s voice down-pat, as she’s able to perform each and every song required of her in the film with a level of accuracy and precision not matched by an actor since, perhaps, Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line. She also does an excellent cover of Alphaville’s “Big in Japan” over the end credits, which is fascinating as well in a humorously metatexual sort of way (given that the alleged father of Nico’s child, Alain Delon, co-stars in the Godard film of the same name). These aspects of the film are genuinely incredible, and are worth your attention alone.
Less successful are Nicchiarelli’s attempts to extend the drama to the singer’s recently-hired bandmates, especially those involving a junk-sick guitarist (Calvin Demba) and the violinist (Anamaria Marinca) who loves him, but these odd scenes serve a narrative point when the film turns to the matter of Nico’s sobriety, and how second chances are things only reserved for the money-making talent. The same goes for Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), a tour manager who starts to fall in love with the singer, and helps her on the path to sobriety. It’s just so hard to give a damn about any other character, really, with how fiercely Dyrholm dominates the screen, and her entrancing and layered performance is intoxicating in a way nearly unique to the genre.
Nico, 1988 has no problem whatsoever seeing its lead in a variety of difficult lights, from her slight prejudices, which rear their ugly heads often (she was raised in Nazi Germany, after all), to the cruelty towards her managers and her bandmates, to her painful neglect towards her only son, Ari, when he was young. In one of the film’s most upsetting scenes, we flash back to a Factory party, held in some unknown red room, where a young Ari is abandoned by his mother, a child in a sea of uncaring adults. Left to his own devices, the kid starts taking sips from leftover drinks on the table nearest him — a cosmo first, a beer second — and we leave the moment before we see how the night ends. It’s a pretty damning moment for Nico’s role as a parent, and we see the consequences of this later on in the film, but it also emphasizes the gaps between their lived experiences. She watched the fires of burning Berlin from across the plains, he watched his mother leave him behind.
Anyways, if you’re expecting this to be a total condemnation of an aging artist, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Dyrholm somehow manages to take those rough edges and emphasize how genuinely ugly the singer could be as a person, but also conveys how deeply moving spending time with someone like her could be. When she says “I wasn’t happy when I was beautiful,” you believe her. There’s a beautiful scene between her host during a stopover in Italy and her, late at night, when Nico, after storming home from a gig angrily, opens up to him about a number of small and humanizing things. She talks about her love of food and how it stems from the hunger she endured as a child during the end of World War II, and the two, against all odds, manage to enjoy a quiet moment together despite all of the difficulties she’s made for her host and for herself. When he goes to clean the plates, she thanks him earnestly, and you can see the relief on her face that she’s had a moment in which Christa Päffgen could talk about her childhood and explore her curiosities about Italian culture (in drinking a small glass of limoncello that she begs her host to let her try, despite it not going with pasta) unencumbered by the Nico persona and its need to play to the cheap seats.
The passion that we see from her, as well, is endearing, even if it is sad, such as her junk-sick angry performance in front of a rebellious crowd in Prague, in which the commie-hating singer tries to embody Delacroix’s Liberty, leading the Czech people to rebel against their totalitarian leaders. Much like the rest of the film, it’s exhilarating and, perhaps, totally fictional, but it’s realistically moving all the same.