Susanna Nicchiarelli's biopic of the German singer and artist is as impermeable as it is impermanent - those seeking a window into the artist's life should look elsewhere.
Some may applaud Nico, 1988 for being a film with zero fucks to give. Much like its central subject, and her music, it is so confident in its own creative superiority that it doesn’t seem to care whether or not you “get” the message. Instead it blazes ahead, doing its own thing, defying you to invent a meaning for yourself if that sort of thing is so important to you.
The narrative is constructed not so much of what we call scenes, but rather an extended series of brief interludes, tumbling blindly after each other in a panoply of disarray, with a minimum regard for connective tissue. By presenting its story as a drug-addled, hazy recollection of a whirlwind life, the film aims to reflect the forty-nine-year-old artist’s state of mind. It mostly succeeds. Taken as a whole, the biopic and its muse are both a deconstructivist challenge to ascribe purpose: to art, to experience, and to the sum of our labors.
Ostensibly, the story takes place during the last few years of Nico’s life, but in practice, nearly every line of dialogue is an eyebrow raised against her ongoing behavior cycle, both in the now and during her preceding decades in the entertainment industry, a legacy and a lifestyle she is unable to escape. The brutal gravity of the past is an intentional theme. Nico is consistently sick of interviews about her brief stint with The Velvet Underground, but no one is remotely interested about her bizarre new late-career solo work. Note the reference to Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (you can’t miss it):
“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind”
Trine Dyrholm (who does all her own singing, thank you very much) is absolutely phenomenal in the role of Nico. Drawing from a deep well of pathos, she effortlessly portrays this shattered thing that used to be a human being. The film anchors itself in her performance, which is not necessarily a bad thing; but in this case, the character is so aloof, alienating, and inconsiderate, that the end result is that the movie by extension seems to close every door to you. It is made clear that investing your thoughts and feelings in this drama is a fool’s errand.
Supporting characters suffer a similar fate, falling in and out of relationships in the margins of Nico’s sphere of influence. It matters very little. Even the purported obsession with her son (Sandor Funtek) seems like a footnote in the saga of Nico the Misbegotten Genius.
Writer/director Susanna Nicchiarelli takes credit for the film’s stunningly quiet visuals. The film plays with space well, contrasting overstuffed cars and cramped apartments with vast open-air concert arenas. It makes good use of harshly angular architecture, and often contrasts bright primary colors with deep wells of shadow that perhaps only Nico can see.
In other hands, the film might have portrayed Nico as a tormented Cassandra, singing truths that are doomed to fall on deaf ears. Here, she is more like Narcissus, so self-centered that the love of others becomes unattainable, even when it is offered freely. Her son was taken from her at a young age because she refused to sacrifice her preferred Bohemian lifestyle. Her steadfast manager Richard (John Gordon Sinclair) secretly pines for her, but she rejects him in favor of an empty marriage of convenience with her landlord. She has nothing but contempt for the adoration of her fans and audiences. Nico’s tragic flaw is that she has somehow convinced herself that no one could ever possibly understand her.