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Long past her glory days as a superstar beauty at Andy Warhol’s Factory and sometimes lead singer for the Velvet Underground, Christa Paffgen, known professionally as Nico, is tumbling down the slope of heroin addiction as Nico, 1988 opens. Concentrating on her band’s disastrous tour from Manchester, England, to Italy and East Europe, writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli dives deeply into the life of a tragic but remarkable woman, memorably portrayed by Danish actress and singer Trine Dyrholm as an unpleasant, hurtful junkie plagued with memories and regrets. It opened Venice Horizons with a rebellious backward look at the counterculture of the 1980s.
In truth, this Italy-U.K. co-production from the director of the prize-winning Cosmonaut (2009) neither looks nor feels like a contemporary Italian film. Lensed almost entirely in English with an international cast, the Celluloid Dreams title has a very indie energy and can bank on an engaging music track that should pull in rockers from multiple age groups, both those who know Nico’s story and those who don’t.
Susanne Ofteringer’s 1996 documentary Nico Icon addressed the self-destructive side of the German singer, actress and model, who at one point in her solo, post-Velvet Underground musical career was known as the “priestess of darkness” and the first goth girl. There are vestiges of goth in Nico’s shiny work clothes — notably her black leather leggings and boots — but Nicchiarelli’s screenplay limits itself to three key years, 1986-1988, when she and her British manager Richard (John Gordon Sinclair) went on the road with a small, poorly rehearsed band to promote her latest album.
Her early life is glimpsed in Super-8 flashbacks and flitting, hand-held camerawork (some of it credited to the Jonas Mekas films Walden – Diaries Notes and Sketches and Scenes From the Life of Andy Warhol: Friendships and Intersections.) Discreet mention is made of the beautiful people she once used to hang out with, who included the likes of Mick Jagger and Lou Reed, Brian Eno and Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimmy Page, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. She had a small part in La Dolce Vita and starred in Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. But all that was before this story begins, and flashes onscreen as hazy, uncertain memories.
Her earliest memory is a haunting one: As a child at the end of World War II, she is standing with her mother and watching Berlin burn in the distance under Allied bombs. This traumatic moment connects to later dysfunctioning like her own personal Rosebud.
Winner of Berlin’s best actress award in 2016 for her role in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune, Dyrholm is at her multifaceted best here in the glammed-down, uglified role of an older rock ‘n’ roll star on the skids. Her atomic blonde hair is dyed black and badly cut, and she is no longer the lithe beauty of before — something she claims to be happy about, because she wants to be remembered not for her looks, but as a serious musician. Outspoken and embarrassingly direct, her reactions range from contemptuous disdain to droll humor. She’s capable of shouting out “Where’s my heroin?” in a posh Prague restaurant right before an illegal concert, and of upbraiding her strung-out guitarist onstage, then telling the shocked audience what they can do with themselves.
Dyrholm, a singer in her own right, injects the aging songstress with real pain and passion, banging the piano in dark glasses like Stevie Wonder and raucously singing under the influence of smack mainlined into her bruised ankle. (Apart from Nature Boy and a few other classics, the songs are not Nico’s own but satisfyingly “in the spirit of,” written by the Italian group Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo.) She is captivating when she finally belts out a number without the aid of drugs. Set against her towering personality, the supporting characters fizzle in failed subplots involving brief love affairs among members of the band. Even her unruffled manager, played in a tacky checked jacket by Glasgow actor and singer Sinclair (World War Z), pales beside this one-woman show and walking disaster.
Yet unexpectedly, Nico’s life starts an upward spiral when she goes on methadone and reunites with her teenage son Ari, played with handsome pathos by Sandor Funtek (Blue Is the Warmest Color). The son of a famous French father (Alain Delon’s name is never mentioned in the film) who refuses to acknowledge his paternity, and of a mother too young and flighty to look after him, Ari is seen in flashbacks as a curly-haired little boy sitting alone and ignored at a flashy party, consuming the remains of every drink in sight. When Nico’s parental authority is revoked by the courts, he is adopted by his French grandmother but ends up badly, indeed. Nico goes to visit him, presumably after a long absence, in a home for the mentally ill in one of the film’s most emotional scenes.
A great deal of the pic’s excitement comes from painstaking tech work with the images. They electrify cinematographer Crystel Fournier’s dark, they-live-by-night vision of the aging Nico on a record tour she doesn’t believe in, and give nervous energy to the continually moving camera. Editor Stefano Cravero’s pacing is swift and the cutting sophisticated.
Production companies: Vivo Film, RAI Cinema, Tarantula
Cast: Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair, Anamaria Marinca, Sandor Funtek, Thomas Trabacchi, Karina Fernandez, Calvin Demba.
Director-screenwriter: Susanna Nicchiarelli
Producers: Gregorio Paonessa, Marta Donzelli, Joseph Rouschop, Valerie Boumonville
Executive producer: Alessio Lazzareschi
Director of photography: Crystel Fournier
Production designers: Alessandro Vannucci with Igor Gabriel
Costume designers: Francesca Vecchi, Roberta Vecchi
Editor: Stefano Cravero
Music: Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo
Casting director: Francesca Borromeo
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
World sales: Celluloid Dreams
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