She sang, he filmed

Pub date May 14, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Perhaps you’d like a dark date with Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Bysshe Shelley. If not, you can always opt for a purple romp with Rimbaud and Verlaine, or Gertrude and Alice, or Paul and Jane Bowles. Maybe you have an ear for rock, in which case you can hit the bed or hit a vein with John and Yoko, or Sid and Nancy, or Kurt and Courtney. Really, what doesn’t fascinate us about legendary bohemian couples of various eras? They’re like Brangelina, but with a more thesis-friendly shelf life for anyone aspiring to a liberal arts degree.

We fetishize intersections between artists in any influential boho scene, from the Symbolists and the Dadaists to the Beats. Whether those bohos are hippies or punks, their brief encounters heighten each other’s retrospective glamour. Andy Warhol might be the all-time champ at making every minor contributor into a cult figure. One woman provided a bridge between the Warhol Factory and the fertile Euro boho scenes of the 1960s and ’70s. That woman was Nico (birth name: Christa Päffgen), the ethereally gorgeous model-actor turned avant-chanteuse who could transform anything — a sweet Jackson Browne ballad or one of her own inimitable compositions — into a postapocalyptic dirge.

The camera may have loved Nico, but that sentiment went unrequited. After she appeared in a few films, including 1966’s Chelsea Girls, and onstage as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour, Lou Reed dumped her, the Velvet Underground didn’t want her, and MGM Records realized the record-buying public enjoyed listening to this bleating beauty even less than they did the variably twee, glum, cacophonous, and not yet desert island–ready V.U.

Thus, this Germanic grievous angel slunk back to the continent from whence she came, leaving behind a list of ex-lovers that purportedly included Jim Morrison, John Cale, Brian Jones, Tim Buckley, and Iggy Pop. Once there, she fell in with a heady Parisian counterculture — in particular, with the filmmaker Philippe Garrel.

The film series "I’ll Be Your Mirror: Rare Films by Philippe Garrel" cuts a swath through Nico’s and Garrel’s enduring dual magnetism, a connection that endured long after her 1988 death from a cerebral hemorrhage. Ten years her junior, Garrel was barely out of his teens when he met Nico, yet he was already finishing his fourth feature, La Lit de la Vierge. She contributed the song "The Falconer" to that film’s ripe slice of 1969 Maintenant Génération angst, which was heavily dosed on post–May 1968 disillusionment and LSD.

A look at Morocco through a black-and-white CinemaScope viewfinder, La Lit de la Vierge is characteristic of Garrel’s hard-to-find (and hard to watch, some might say) early films. It’s visually striking, madly pretentious, and a perfect time capsule of a particular cultural moment’s entwined adventure and humorlessness. Scrawny and sporting a Prince Valiant ‘do, Pierre Clémenti is the film’s hippie Jesus, who rides into town on a burro only to be knocked off his humble ride by bullies. This Jesus has some real Oedipal issues, and no wonder — the actress Zouzou (Danièle Ciarlet) plays both Mary and Mary Magdalene. In case you can’t tell by now, there won’t be a Second Coming: when Christ makes an exit, it’s to get the hell away from people.

Nico appeared in virtually all of Garrel’s subsequent movies up until their decisive 1980 split. The fallout from their less-than-healthy relationship resonates through his more conventional later efforts, perhaps most blatantly within 1991’s I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore. In that film, Marianne (Johanna ter Steege; cute, but lacking Nico’s goddess quality) is a maddening object of desire who abandons lovers after dragging them into her heroin-addicted spiral. "I love you like a madman," declares Garrel’s stand-in Gerard (Benoît Régent). "That means the day you cease to be crazy, you won’t love me anymore," she snaps. Later, when talking to Gerard’s stable new squeeze, Marianna seems to speak for the director and his late muse when she ponders, "Maybe I didn’t make him happy, but it was a different era. Maybe we didn’t need to be happy. We were seeking something else."

Guitar‘s posthumous portrait is more repellent than alluring. But to help the unconverted fathom Nico’s peak mystique, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts film curator Joel Shepard has also programmed The Velvet Underground and Nico, an hour-long 1966 performance directed by Warhol. Static and chaotic, it features Nico on tambourine, with little Ari (her son by Alain Delon), a noise-jamming V.U., Mary Woronov and Gerard Malanga a-go-go, and a bout of performance interruptus courtesy of the NYPD. At the box office, up until 2005’s Regular Lovers, Philippe Garrel couldn’t get arrested. But outside of it, the types he hung with always could.


Thurs/15–Sun/18, $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787