Director: Sebastian Schipper
Stars: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski
Before we get started there is a bit of health and safety business worth mentioning that I’ve not seen anywhere else as of yet, least of all at the top of the film. Victoria opens with an extended sequence of strobe lighting. If you are someone who is adversely affected by such things, you might well consider whether this is the cinematic experience for you.
Now, onto the film. Set in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin in the early hours, Victoria is the tale of a café waitress of the same name (Laia Costa) who befriends a group of four men upon leaving an underground club. They spend an hour or so together, laughing, joking and hanging out, during which time Victoria grows fond of Sonne (Frederick Lau). However, things take a turn as the new day dawns. Victoria is drawn into a criminal enterprise, one which will spill out into violence across the city and ultimately change her life.
All of this is captured in one 138 minute shot. Yeah.
Now, this isn’t the first time someone’s attempted to do such a thing, but director Sebastian Schipper’s crime caper is, in a way, far more ambitious than Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark; also a one-shot feature, albeit taking the form of a ponderous museum tour. Victoria covers multiple locations, requires consistent and evolving performances from its actors, and constantly runs the risk of falling foul of any number of accidents or happenstance that life is want to throw at an endeavour such as this.
For the logistical marvel of the thing Schipper must undoubtedly be congratulated for sticking to such a foolhardy plan.
Without the gift of editing, the film beds down for its first hour in an attempt to build the audience’s relationship with its central group in real-time. In this Schipper is only partly successful. The boys are a lock; playing off one another in a manner that reads as truthful; but what do we know of them? Little is particularly revealed outside of requirements dictated by the events to come. Sonne himself is a tipsy charmer throughout this section. He does have some chemistry with Costa (dedicated throughout as Victoria and one of the film’s greatest assets), but other than that comes across as little more than a harmless reprobate.
However ambling the first hour may appear, its greatest achievement is how it captures the winding down of a long and drunken night out. There’s an element of pleasing youthful delinquency between these characters that shimmers, and Schipper’s film is wholly evocative of bleary eyed drunkenness and early hours camaraderie. Conceived as purely a mood and character piece, perhaps with an overarching romantic angle, Victoria may well have proved far more compelling and charming. As it is, once the genre trappings assert themselves, the film starts to skitter quickly into implausibility and cliché.
The second half is propulsive, sure, but it also feels reactionary and ill-thought-out, with character decisions that beggar belief and an escalating resentment for the one-take gimmick (I’m calling it). The truisms of the film’s beginning sit uncomfortably with what follows. A contemplative car ride divides the film in half, but it’s not enough of a bridge to weld the two parts together. Victoria feels decidedly off-kilter, not to mention too damned long, no matter how impressive the list of locations becomes.
Out of necessity of the filming device, certain other niceties of cinema have been abandoned along with the editor. Victoria relies wholly on natural light, something that often seems in short supply, particularly in the pre-dawn but also in the array of corridors, parking garages and stairwells we’re led through. Often the colour palette of the film is a murky blue/brown dirge.
Not that there’s an awful lot to look at half the time either. Camera operator Sturla Brandth Grøvlen must be commended for his part in this as much as the actors, but in order to keep the complex take rolling, focus is often the first thing to go. Nearly half of Victoria is captured in a sort of woozy blur. You can readily argue that it is befitting of the half-inebriated state of its principals, but it’s hardly a joy to look at. Remember when you used to go and collect the prints from a disposable camera at the local pharmacy only to discover half of your snaps were poorly framed, ugly smudges? Schipper’s film recalls that sensation quite frequently.
Orchestrating a fully-fledged genre crime thriller in a single take shows bravura ambition, so what’s ultimately a little perplexing is why, with such an audacious boundary-breaking achievement in mind, present such a retrograde story? If the two halves of the film rub against one another awkwardly, so too do the contradictory notions of what’s been told versus the method of expression. Had this been presented conventionally Victoria would likely have sailed by unnoticed. If there’s a lesson being presented here within the film, it’s that such spontaneity is likely to land you in hot water.
It’s a shame, because I really want to open-heartedly cheer everyone involved for their commitment to the project, particularly the actors, who are visibly exhausted by the end of what must’ve been quite an endurance test. Reportedly Victoria was captured on the third attempt. That’s both commendable and, unfortunately, rather telling. At least with conventional techniques you can keep going ’til it’s the best it can be instead of high-fiving the first take that didn’t fuck up. But then, one senses that Victoria‘s bigger problems are rooted in it’s very premise and not the method of delivery.