LFF 2017: Nico, 1988 Review
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Christa Päffgen is backstage waiting to go out and perform a few jazz standards (an obligation fulfilled smacked out of her head) and is speaking with her club owner manager, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), putting the finishing touches to her make-up. She asks Richard if she looks ugly, to which he replies tongue-in-cheek, "yeah, really". She confidently responds, "Good, I wasn’t happy when I was beautiful". The moment perfectly describes Nico's descent from Andy Warhol muse and 60s avant grade rock 'n' roll icon to the markedly changed woman we see her as in Susanna Nicchiarelli's biopic, Nico, 1988.
An early reference to Warhol and The Velvet Underground draws a terse response from Christa who is more interested in discussing her career since then and her new album - which was to be her last - Camera Obscura. Christa purposely deconstructed the aura that surrounded Nico after that iconic 1967 album, falling into heroin, dying her hair and mostly disappearing from the spotlight. After moving from country to country, Obscura was recorded in London with John Cale, and she embarked on a tour through the back ends of Europe with a band she despised. The film takes in this journey, concentrating on the last two years of her life, 1986-88, where she ultimately died aged 49.
Danish actress Trine Dyrholm takes on the tempestuous personality of Christa and her committed performance feels nothing less than thoroughly lived-in. Crowds were hardly flocking to buy Nico’s music and concerts were held in dark, intimate surroundings, none of which affected her ability to be an absolute nightmare to work with. She saw her band as drug-addled amateurs and reminding them of that mid-performance wasn't beyond her either. Dyrholm's intimate take on the singer extends into the live performances, avoiding the usual mistake of imitation or awkward miming. Hearing her sing Nico's songs adds an air of authenticity, especially for those not too au fait with her distinctive sound. This reaches a peak with a magnetic performance of 'My Heart Is Empty', Dyrholm roaring through the lyrics and feeding off the crowd’s powerful energy.
The party lifestyle that dominated her 20s led to her losing custody of her son Ari (Sandor Funtek), fathered by French actor Alain Delon, although he refused to acknowledge him as his child. He was raised by her mother and father and Nicchiarelli’s story tells us that repeated suicide attempts saw him sent away to a psychiatric hospital in his late-teens. Their broken relationship continued to haunt Christa and later efforts to rebuild their bond saw her kick the drug habit in an attempt to start afresh.
Grainy super-8 flashbacks recall her early life in the Warhol set and these fleeting moments help to furnish the blurry memories of Nico two decades on. These recollections remain as hazy as her own ability to remember the highlife of the 60s, a period spent strung out on alcohol and drugs now largely forgotten to her. She bears little resemblance to the image that created her stardom and it’s a faded rock star attire she appears to revel in. Dyrholm is spellbinding and so deeply entrenched within her persona that it’s impossible to conceive of another actress in the role.
John Gordon Sinclair is comfortingly reliable as the star-struck road manager in awe of his artist and Thomas Trabacchi adds a mature sexiness to the role of Domenico, Christa’s last lover. He was also one of the last members of her touring band and their sound is moodily re-arranged by Italian group Gatto Ciliegia Contro il Grande Freddo. Much of what drove Christa Päffgen remains as mysterious as the life she led but Nico, 1988 presents a formidable woman at peace with the direction of her life. It’s a film based on the recollections of those who knew and spent time with Christa, shunning sentimentality in favour of shaping the inner world of a former icon whose flirtation with death sadly led to a cruel and unfair ending.