Nico, 1988: Drama of Exile, by David Bax
With its 4×3 aspect ratio, its video cinematography and its simultaneously colorful and depressingly muted color palette, Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 deliberately feels at times like some rundown TV newsmagazine profile of the model-turned-singer at the final stages of her career, an end-of-the-hour human interest story from a darker, sadder alternate dimension.
Nico was the stage name of Christa Päffgen (played here by Trine Dyrholm), a model and actress whose nascent singing career was given a boost by a short-lived collaboration with The Velvet Underground. Nico, 1988 picks up twenty years later, after she has released her sixth (and final) solo album. Now living in Manchester, England, she supports herself and her ongoing heroin habit by touring Europe playing concerts that range from major professional gigs to semi-legal secret shows.
Despite her two decades as an artist in her own right, she is still constantly defined by Lou Reed, Andy Warhol and others, all men, who are a part of her past. Nicchiarelli, who also wrote the screenplay, peppers the movie with Nico’s soulless press obligations, in which she is either asked about old associations with men like Reed or Brian Jones or present ones like her tenuous relationship with her son (Sandor Funtek) or her manager (John Gordon Sinclair) or basically about anything other than her own voluminous artistic output.
Luckily for us, Nicchiarelli is very much concerned with that output and clearly acquired some rights to it for Nico, 1988. The movie is replete with musical performances, providing Dyrholm the opportunity to give haunting and verisimilar performances of Nico’s solo work like “My Heart Is Empty,” Velvet Underground songs like “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and her well-known cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days.” The self-apparent excellence of so many of these songs proves that Christa is not lying when she churlishly tells an interviewer that her time with The Velvet Underground was before her artistic life even began. Nicchiarelli and Dyrholm understand that to define Nico by that brief time would be like trying a gauge an adult’s personality from their sonogram photos.
There is intentionally very little of the 1960s Factory Nico to be found in Nico, 1988. Here, she has let her hair return to its natural brown color (ironically requiring a dye job for the blonde Dyrholm) and is glad to be called “ugly” because, she says, “I wasn’t happy when I was beautiful.” The cast is solid throughout—especially Karina Fernandez, a regular in the stable of Mike Leigh, who plays a competent but mostly ignored tour manager with terrifically crimped hair—but Dyrholm is the glowing ember at the center. Her embodiment of Christa lies in a kind of ferocious stasis between joie de vivre and already being checked out.
That’s the psychological real estate Nico, 1988 inhabits as well. A portrait of alienation that’s both heartbreaking and liberating, the film resists musician biopic tropes. It’s like the middle section of an episode of Behind the Music unfolding in slow motion, disembodied from the breathless early rise or the forced catharsis of the comeback and self-actualization narrative. It’s a purposeful downer of a movie about a life and career petering out and yet it’s oddly triumphant because, finally, it happened on Christa’s terms.