“Please don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them,” sings German model-actress-musician Nico on 1967’s Jackson Browne-penned “These Days,” one of her signature post-Velvet Underground songs. It opens Susanna Nicchiarelli’s third feature, “Nico, 1988,” an exploration of the cult star’s final two years before her death at age 49, and the song’s mournful rumination on regret is tailor-made for the story.
Nico (Trine Dyrholm, “The Commune,” “In a Better World”) hates being called by that stage name, even though by 1986 when the film begins, it’s her last remaining meal ticket. Born Christa Päffgen in 1930s Germany, she has never been famous in the traditional sense. A teenage model who became one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars,” appearing in a handful of his experimental films, she sang three songs on an album, “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” that few people knew about at the time of its initial release, but grew in stature and influence years later.
But cult fame is often born from much less, and nearly two decades later, she lives quietly in Manchester, England, known but not rich, admired within punk and goth subcultures for her brooding, melancholy compositions, her fan base collected from the fringe.
She is also a heroin addict, a situation that has derailed her life and career, and made her desire to escape “Nico” even more difficult. Having long ago lost custody of her son Ari — whom she introduced to heroin, sparking his own addiction, here played by Sandor Funtek (“Dheepan”) — and having recorded only two albums in a dozen years, 1986 sees Christa embarking on a poorly organized European tour, staying in bad hotels, abusing her beleaguered handlers, and enduring clueless radio DJs lobbing all the wrong questions.
When asked about suicide attempts, she says, “Yeah,” and nothing more. She responds to questions about Warhol glory days with, “We took a lot of LSD. That is what we did,” a wide-eyed glare indicating that the matter is closed.
“Nico, 1988” wisely sidesteps maudlin tragic-final-days tropes, though there were plenty of those in real life. Instead, Nicchiarelli’s compassionate take focuses on Päffgen’s struggle to maintain her own sense of agency. Christa attempts to reconcile her desire to make a living with her desire to disappear, to forge connections with her youthful audience even as she announces, “Young people are boring,” to make amends with Ari while still addicted herself, and most importantly, to keep creating new music in the face of fans who want to hear her sing The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” She carries around a cumbersome tape recorder like a shield, strapped into it, headphones on, capturing unusual sonic samples, looking for what she calls, in one of the film’s more moving confessions, “the sound of defeat.”
Cinematographer Crystel Fournier (“Girlhood,” “Water Lilies”) frames Dyrholm squarely in place, straightforwardly, with no frills, giving the actor room to engage directly with the camera and space around her. She stuffs her mouth with spaghetti, she shoots up in a suburban bathroom, she melts down on stage.
Flashbacks to a childhood in war-shredded Germany provide touches of context, and flourishes of Jonas Mekas archival footage, zooming through 1960s New York and Warhol’s Factory scene (clips that feature glimpses of the real Nico) as Dyrholm sings intense, despair-filled songs like “Janitor of Lunacy,” take on the quality of painful memories.
And it’s Dyrholm’s performance that anchors everything. It relies little on physical impersonation, even though her singing voice captures Nico’s unmistakable, late-career deadpan cry, a foghorn of mourning that sounded then and now like no one else’s. She conjures the essentials: frustration, regret, and defiance, boring holes into the camera with a stubborn stare. When she belts out “My Heart is Empty,” it’s raw and real.
Her Christa carries the weight of a name she doesn’t want, struggles to be seen as a person outside the persona she helped create, and trudges forward even though she knows somehow that she’ll never be rid of herself, that she is in fundamental ways trapped by her own history, already living inside the sound of defeat.