Movie Review: Nico, 1988 (2017)

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"Looking for a sound that isn't a sound" or something she heard at the end of World War II as a child that sounded like defeat – when she isn't shooting up in bathrooms or playing gigs in Europe with a band of misfits – the now nearly fifty year old Nico a.k.a Christa Päffgen spends her time wandering around Europe with a recorder, searching for the past.

A recurring theme of this contemplative slice-of-life docudrama, with its square format and muted color scheme, Italian writer/director Susanna Nicchiarelli transports viewers to the late 1980s right along with Christa (played by Trine Dyrholm) as she tries to balance past wrongs in the present and set things right for the future by reuniting with the son she'd lost custody of decades earlier.

An above average passion project that's dependent upon the viewer having more than just a cursory familiarity with its subject, Nico, 1988 jumps over the most publicized period of the icon's life with Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground when she was famous mostly for her legendary beauty and the men who shared her art or bed.

More than just Warhol's Muse or Lou Reed's Femme Fatale, the filmmaker makes her point clear shortly into Nico, 1988 that the Nico we knew doesn't live here anymore when, in the first of several interviews which focus solely on her time with The Velvet Underground, Päffgen tells the radio host her name isn't Nico but Christa.

Painting a portrait of – as Nicchiarelli explains in the press notes – "one the most beautiful women in the world who finally becomes happy when she gets rid of her beauty," as well as "an uncompromising artist who finds satisfaction in her art only after having lost most of her fans," Nico, 1988 replaces that era's oft-depicted male gaze with a female one twice over.

Living a simpler life in Manchester, when she isn't on the road, the Christa we meet (whom Dyrholm and Nicchiarell based on extensive biographical research and witness accounts from those who knew her best) is a conflicted artist with as many ideas as she has regrets.

Persuaded to try kicking the habit once again by Richard, the manager who loves her from afar (played by a terrifically understated John Gordon Sinclair), the two track down her beloved son Ari (Sandor Funtek), who shares some of the same demons as his mother despite years apart.

Having established early on that there are at least two – if not more – sides to her subject, Nicchiarelli wisely opens up the admittedly loose narrative to let us see Christa/Nico through the eyes of those in her orbit, from her bandmates (including a violinist played by Anamaria Marinca whose storyline is fascinating enough to inspire a follow-up film) to her manager.

In a riveting turn by Dyrholm (who performs all of the singer's vocals), as much as we see Nico come alive in her passionate musical performances, now that she's filled with more purpose than ever before as both a musician and mother, it's with Ari where Christa truly lights up.

A film of moods and feeling as well as a distinct time and place, which is easily attributable to the flawless '80s visuals of frequent Céline Sciamma cinematographer Crystel Fournier, while it's far less structured than traditional biopics, Nicchiarelli's Nico is exceptionally well made to the point that it would be easy to mistake some scenes for authentic footage.

Collaborating with the Italian band Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo, the film includes some of Nico’s best known numbers including a haunting rendition of "Nature Boy," along with new works in the spirit of the singer that, to the band's credit, manage to blend in seamlessly with the rest of her catalog.

Weaving in a beautiful through-line about Christa's search for the sound (or gateway) from her past as a young girl in Berlin who could've taken an altogether different path as opposed to her time spent with Warhol, although it's inevitably less interesting the less you know about the rock goddess, in Nico, 1988 Nicchiarelli and Dyrholm do their best to give viewers a Christa we won't forget.

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