Nico 1988 (2017), written and directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli, follows the eponymous chanteuse through the last two years of her tumultuous life. The majority of the timeline takes place in a subdued green and blue-hued landscape populated with seedy nightclubs and Brutalist architecture. Jonas Mekas’ frenetic red-tinged footage woven into the narrative sparks like a live wire, showing a luminous Nico in her heyday as Andy Warhol’s muse.
Danish actress Trine Dyrholm fearlessly breathes life into Christa Päffgen, aka Nico, a middle-aged singer grappling with her demons while touring with her love-struck manager, Richard, and ragtag band of musicians. Christa refuses to be defined by her brief stint as a pop culture neophyte. She shrugs off all attempts at nostalgia. When an interviewer refers to her as “Nico, Lou Reed’s femme fatale” she corrects him sternly, “Don’t call me that. Don’t call me Nico. Call me by my real name, Christa.” Of her time with The Velvet Underground she remarks, “I only sang three songs with them… I’d rather talk about the present. I wasn’t happy when I was beautiful.”
This is a musical biopic stripped down to the bone and gristle. Christa is a restless soul, a seeker. She roams the earth with her portable sound-recording gear, trying to recapture not a sound, but an energy she felt as a child when Berlin fell, ending WWII. Even in her darkest hour after a failed suicide attempt by her son, Ari, Christa had her eyes fixed firmly on the future. She is continually striding towards the woman she wants to become and away from the faded image of her past.
Nico 1988 is less of a faithful biopic and more of a cautionary tale. Think of the protagonist as an amalgam of many stars whose luster has weathered to a mottled patina. This film is a vital example of the power of the Female Gaze. Nicchiarelli and Dyrholm’s collaboration liberates Nico from Christa Päffgen.
In the words of Christa, “I’ve been on the top and I’ve been on the bottom, both places are empty.”