At the beginning of Nico Icon (Roxie Releasing, unrated), the entrancingly lurid new documentary about the zombie chanteuse of the late '60s, we hear Nico performing the Velvet Underground's ''Femme Fatale'' in her druggy, lugubrious, Berlin-is-burning-and-I-don't-care monotone Marlene Dietrich on a stoned-hippie death trip. I remember that when I first heard Nico, I couldn't decide whether she was a woman or a man. My confusion, in hindsight, was a bit comic Nico was one of the most beautiful women of the 20th century. Yet perhaps I wasn't so far off base. As we listen to her intone about a femme fatale who's ''going to break your heart in two,'' the words not so much sung as chanted, she's really playing two roles at once: the cold, unknowable temptress and the imperious robot-god narrator. A void observing a void.
A scrupulous assemblage of home movies, performance clips, and interviews, Nico Icon offers the voyeuristic spectacle of Nico as the ultimate in self-destructive chic. There is, first off, the icy mannequin goddess (full lips, impossibly high cheekbones, Olympian stature), born Christa Paffgen, who emerged from Germany in the mid-'50s to become perhaps the first of the modern supermodels. Her cover-girl fame culminated in her landing a cameo in Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), but she longed to be a singer, and it was only after an aborted career as a European pop diva (we see her in an early video from 1965) that Andy Warhol and the Velvets, on their first record, promoted and exploited her as a siren of the new underground aristocracy. (Her Teutonic beauty, with its echo of Hitler's master-race fantasies, became a subtext of the band's decadence.) Then there's the Nico who faded, almost overnight, from the limelight and spent the next two decades as an X ray of her former self gloomy and ravaged, strung out on smack, traveling from one club to the next to perform her listless cabaret doom rock. The clips of Nico during the '80s are scary to behold (a band member recalls that she was proud of her physical degeneration). The fascination of Nico Icon, with its queasy dance of before-and-after images, is the way that Nico, in all her guises, was defined and ultimately destroyed by the Warhol cult of detachment. Model, punk, Eurotrash ghoul every phase of her life represented a new escape from experience. (She died, in 1988, at 49, after falling off a bicycle and suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.)
We hear much about Nico's empty search for thrills, her casual drift from one man to the next. Her lovers included Jim Morrison and Jackson Browne, and though she had a son with the French actor Alain Delon (who never acknowledged paternity), she was too irresponsible to raise him; years later, she even turned him on to heroin. For all that, it's hard to be shocked by Nico's self-styled depravity. Despite numerous interview clips, she remains aloof to the point of unknowability, a Vogue cover rotting away before our eyes. Like so many heroin addicts, she sought transcendence, yet as molded by the fashion industry and the Warhol Factory, she couldn't allow herself to believe in it. If Nico longed for anything, it was to escape her own glamour, and, as Nico Icon makes shatteringly clear, she did so by seeing glamour in death.