Nico looked like she came from a planet of bored beautiful women and was sent here to mingle with the troglodytes. Because of her appearance, she was a natural for the world of fashion, movies, and music, but the joke was on us – her inner life was as gloomy as an alley full of syringes. When you meet this sort of woman, you’re smitten, but you know a bad deal is going down.
There’d been quickie parts in La Dolce Vita and A Man Named Rocca, for she was already known in the early ‘60s as one of the top models in Europe, appearing in everything from the covers of jazz albums to whiskey ads, but Nico’s first starring role came in Jacques Poitrenaud’s Sweet Skin (1963, aka Strip-Tease), a curiosity in that she ends the film triumphantly, casting away a potential marriage with a rich suitor, and her career as a stripper, to go where life takes her. The underlying message of the movie, that anyone as beautiful as Nico had to be secretly unhappy, was swatted down by an upbeat motto of “Let’s have fun and be ourselves, baby!” But where Nico was concerned, fun seemed a distant and elusive concept.
“No one loved Nico, and Nico loved no one.” So says an old friend in Nico Icon, an excellent documentary that came out in 1995, one that portrays her as a misunderstood, and occasionally rotten person. An affair with French actor Alain Delon resulted in the birth of her son, which she promptly left with Delon’s mother. By the time Nico reunited with the boy, she’d evolved into a knife-wielding junkie who, among her many disreputable acts, got her own son hooked on heroin. She was also deaf in one ear, but that didn’t keep her from a singing career that included three tracks on the first Velvet Underground album and a series of haunting solo albums. She’s left a kind of fading echo, occasionally heard on movie soundtracks, or picked up by far-flung artists like Bjork and Peter Murphy. A Nico revival is unlikely, but her sound was distinct – the noise of a woman at war with demons that would’ve sent the rest of us cowering.
Sweet Skin is fascinating because it’s Nico before her association with Andy Warhol, before Lou Reed, before Jim Morrison, before the drugs that ravaged her, before she became “the godmother of goth.” Her Germanic magnificence might’ve been parlayed into a movie career, at least in Europe. There she stands: the lips are like Peter Max creations, almost cartoonishly big; the eyelashes, as majestic and overdone as Liz Taylor’s in Cleopatra, move like shutters over her large, frightened eyes. Her acting is only fair – she moves stiffly, a simple wave goodbye seems difficult, as if she’s never done it before. Though visually stunning, she’s not especially sexy. She’s good at conjuring a detached melancholy, as if nothing can measure up to her expectations, or, as many say in Nico Icon, she was already tired of being looked at. To me, she has the air of someone who wants to be loved, but wouldn’t recognize love if she saw it.
From certain angles (the work by Poitrenaud and cinematographer Raymond Pierre Lemoigne is exquisite) she seems too big, her chin too prominent, as if she’s a giant among dwarves. She’s playing Ariane, an unemployed ballerina who resorts to working in a strip tease club. Nico’s stiffness actually serves the plot, as a diligent club owner tries to mold Ariane into a classy strip act. The solution is to pair her with a wooden marionette that looks just like her. On her first night in front of a crowd, Ariane panics and runs from the stage, leaving the marionette to perform alone. Audiences love it. “Postmodern strip tease,” one customer calls it.
The irony is thick. Just a few years later, Nico would be absorbed into the Warhol crowd and be hailed as one of his “superstars.” Warhol could certainly appreciate the idea of having a wooden doll onstage performing instead of Nico. And there have been more than enough jokes made about Nico’s wooden performances, so we’ll just let it go for now. In his book Popism, Warhol wrote that Nico looked like she belonged “right at the front of a Viking ship.” Faint praise, really.
According to the Nico legend, long before the making of Sweet Skin, she’d studied at the Actor’s Studio under Lee Strasberg at the same time as Marilyn Monroe. Somehow, this claim feels like a harmless fib to throw out during interviews. It was, after all, a time of reinvention of self-mythologizing. At the least, it was a way to link her to the ultimate in doomed beauties.
Would Sweet Skin be worth watching without Nico? Sure. It’s not only an amusing time capsule of early sixties Paris, a time when people put on their best clothes to go watch strippers, but there’s some tasteful nudity, great photography, and music by Serge Gainsbourg (he makes a cameo). Though it’s not on par with the great French films of the day, it’s a nice, all around package produced by Jules Borkon, who’d been behind the classic French horror film, Eyes Without A Face.
The supporting cast around Nico is excellent. Dany Saval, looking like a young Joan Rivers, is superb as Dodo, a feisty little stripper who introduces Ariane to the Paris demimonde. Jazz legend Joe Turner is very fine as a kindhearted pub owner who befriends Ariane. The various club employees who made up the background of the movie seem authentic; they’re not enamored of the lifestyle but take their jobs seriously. Darry Cowl is especially good as the man who teaches Ariane to move provocatively, and to tell the audience, “Underneath this skin is a woman who despises you.” I also loved the girl who dressed like an office worker, complete with necktie and white dress shirt, and entertained the audience with some sexy hip shaking.
Nico stands out in a couple of scenes, and she does it all with her eyes. One is when she first watches a woman strip. She looks as if something inside her is loosening, something that had been bound up for years. The other is the moment before she makes her debut at the club – she looks out at the crowd of customers and her eyes glaze over, as if she’s seeing, for the first time, a new universe.
There are predictable turns of plot – Ariane grows bored with her fame, falls in love with a wealthy young rogue, and then realizes he’s only using her to upset his stuffy family. She walks away from it all, head held high, determined to go back to the ballet. But as trite as the plot may sound, there are some good lines sprinkled throughout. When one of the strippers sees the new fur coat worn by Ariane, bought by an heir to a munitions fortune, she smirks, “That coat…must be worth a bomb.”
Sweet Skin could’ve been made in the 1930s with Jean Harlow in Nico’s role, but I don’t know if it would work today. Exotic dancers are generally played for laughs now, or else they’re on the periphery of plots about serial killers or degenerate cops. They certainly aren’t placed on a pedestal the way they were when Nico starred in this movie.
From here, Nico appeared in some Warhol “films,” and a few European productions, each one more obscure than the last. Sweet Skin was her one mainstream acting venture. In an alternate universe she might have gone on to become a Bond girl, or maybe a Barbara Steele type, appearing in classy European horror movies. But in our universe, she was Nico. She died at 49. People who knew her said Nico hated being beautiful, and was actually proud of the way she aged, with her bad teeth and her spectral pallor. Maybe she enjoyed seeing her outside finally reflect her inside.