"I'll be your mirror," intoned Nico in 1966, singing one of the many tunes given her by a lover. In retrospect, the line neatly captures the model-actress-singer's '60s persona: a thin, icily beautiful, dyed-blonde blankness, to be defined by Federico Fellini and Andy Warhol, Lou Reed (who wrote "I'll Be Your Mirror") and Bob Dylan.
By 1986, when Nico, 1988 opens, the singer has banished all that: she's become brunette, and cantankerous, and she's gained some weight. She still sings under the name Nico, but her performances are staged mostly to subsidize her true vocation, heroin user. And she insists that acquaintances use her real name, Christa.
Italian writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli's scrappy biopic is billed as a somewhat fictionalized "true story." The script jibes with some accounts of the singer's final years, and any unreliability is partly the responsibility of its subject, who often lied about her life.
The truth of the film, though, is mostly in Trine Dyrholm's performance. The Danish actress (best known for The Commune) plays Nico as perplexing and intriguing, ethereal yet earthy. She manages to make the viewer understand why some people wanted to be around the singer, even though she was demanding, exasperating and untrustworthy—in short, a junkie.
Dyrholm handles the vocals, persuasively singing several of Nico's compositions: slo-mo dirges that combined Germanic hymns, French chansons, and the minor-key epics of the Doors (Jim Morrison was another of Nico's lovers) and the Velvet Underground. Dyrholm also handles a few of the more tuneful numbers Nico recorded, including Jackson Browne's "These Days" (him, too) and "My Funny Valentine."
The story is book-ended by incidents from the beginning and end of Nico's life. In the first, a little girl watches beautiful light in the distance, which her mother explains that Berlin is ablaze. In the second, Nico tells her son that she's going on a bike ride. She won't return.
In between, Nico lives in grim Manchester and undertakes tours arranged by her manager, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair, all grown up 35 years after Gregory's Girl). The singer and a ragged band visit Italy and wiggle past the Iron Curtain, notably for an illegal show in Prague. The musicians slink through the dark, and cinematographer Crystel Fournier films them as if she'd time-traveled through a portal to the last days of the Warsaw Pact.
The movie's Nico focuses mostly on self-preservation. She doesn't give much thought to anyone else, save her teenage addict son, Ari (Sandor Funtek). The child of actor Alain Delon, who never acknowledged him, Ari has ended up in an asylum. Nico wants to get him released and take him on tour, which turns out not to be such a good idea.
Nico, 1988 includes a few clips of low-def archival film from the '60s, glimpses of the young woman's glamorous persona and famous associates. Aside from those inserts, Nicchiarelli focuses tightly on her subject and the few people around her, the better to emphasize Nico's isolation and self-absorption. The director jettisons the larger context and several interesting figures important to the singer's 1986-88 period.
The most curious omission is keyboardist James Young, who not only performed with Nico for most of the '80s but also wrote a very funny memoir about his experiences, published in the U.S. as Nico: The End. Young's outlook is very different from Nicchiarelli's, and the director's response was to excise him utterly: In her telling, Nico's band doesn't even have a keyboard player.
Perhaps Young's book will someday be the source for a different sort of Nico biopic. For now, the story belongs to Nicchiarelli and especially Dyrholm. Later, Nico can be some other canny filmmakers' mirror.