Susanna Nicchiarelli, Italy/Belgium, 2017
Of course I was aware of Nico: face of 60s New York City counterculture, regular at Warhol’s Factory, muse to the Velvet Underground and singer on their first album. A legend of the scene.
But beyond that, I didn’t know much about her. A beautiful but formidable, dour German with a low voice and a reputation for being difficult. But thanks to this film, I have been educated! She was those things – and probably not a very nice woman, possibly a racist anti-semite – but there was a lot more to her. She said herself, life started after the experience with the Velvet Underground, yet she’s mostly remembered for her association with them. It must have been enormously frustrating.
Biopics don’t usually make for good cinema, I find. Trying to cram someone’s life into a coherent two-hour narrative is never going to work. The ones that do work focus on a particular period, capturing more of the essence of what that person was like at that particular time in their life, not just what they did.
And this film is one of those! It’s very engrossing. Writer/director Nicchiarelli said in an interview: “The biggest challenge was to make a movie about someone who is not likeable and hope the audience will still somehow connect with them.”
Based on the last couple of years of Nico’s (actual name Crista Päffgen) life, Nicchiarelli interviewed the people who were close to her at that time. Crista’s only son was heavily involved – although she was deemed as incapable of raising him, their relationship in later life was good, despite both of their drug/mental health problems. It is hinted that her disconnection from being his mother was a great personal tragedy for her.
Exploring the reality rather than the legend in this way creates a nuanced portrait: a flawed but interesting, unconventional, non-conformist human. It is refreshing to see a portrayal of a demanding middle-aged woman who knows herself and has little time for those she considers idiots. (“Young people are boring” she says after grudgingly signing an autograph for a young fan.) She was uncompromising in what she wanted, unapologetic, and not bothered about being popular.
As such, I liked her – this movie version, at least. Whether or not Crista was really like that, I will never know. But the dramatic interpretation was masterful. It’s a confident performance that reveals a complex soul.
I’ve revisited Nico’s solo albums since watching and appreciate them in a new light. I didn’t really like them on first listen, but actually there are some beautiful songs, even if the music can be dark and discordant. I like her strident, assertive, and very unique, voice. She was very much a poet, an artist with much to express.
She died at age 49 after falling off her bike while on holiday in Ibiza.