A washed-out icon lives again in Nico, 1988

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      Starring Trine Dyrholm. In English and German, with English subtitles. Rated PG

      A tightly coiled central performance marks unusual terrain in this small-scale but quietly ambitious character study. Although not everything in Nico, 1988 clicks, it’s still a radically different way to imagine a film biography.

      To begin with, or perhaps to end with, the tale is set in the last two years in the life of Christa Päffgen, a rather noneuphonious real name for the austerely androgynous German model, actor, and art-world muse known as Nico. This starkly aloof figure, who spoke and sang in a Teutonic monotone, became an unexpected musical sensation when Andy Warhol inserted her into house band the Velvet Underground—“To make Lou Reed look cuddly,” as he explained to Factory pals at the time.

      The Velvet days are long behind her by the time we meet Nico, in 1986, as played by Denmark’s terrific Trine Dyrholm, better known for lighter fare like The Commune and Love Is All You Need (opposite Pierce Brosnan). Now she’s a washed-out junkie and overweight alcoholic touring Europe in a dodgy van packed with beat-up gear and even less reliable musicians. She’s hell on wheels to work for, and this requires mollification all around from her tour manager (Scotland’s John Gordon Sinclair, unrecognizable from his youthful lead in Gregory’s Girl).

      Nico, 1988 is a third feature for writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli, after her debut with 2009’s delightful Cosmonaut, about growing up communist in 1980s Italy. It’s her first in English, but she doesn’t make many commercial concessions. There are a few snippets of Nico in her real-life prime, mostly from Jonas Mekas’s footage of the Warhol scene. And she stages fleeting re-creations, most significantly of the infant Christa witnessing the bombing of Berlin from a distant hillside. Later, the middle-aged Nico, who howls more than sings and plays mournful electric piano (both performed by Dyrholm herself), describes the music she keeps looking for as “the sound of defeat”.

      In her heyday, Nico also had a son with French heartthrob Alain Delon, but she gave up the boy, who grew up to be a troubled addict himself. Here, she reconnects with him (France’s Sandor Funtek) and then moves to grittier parts of Manchester before dying, from a complicated bike accident on the island of Ibiza. We don’t witness that denouement, but she is glimpsed riding off into a sun that had already set in the ’60s.