VICTORIA (2015) review
written by: Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Sebastian Schipper and Eike Frederik Schulz
produced by: Jan Dressler, Christiane Dressler and Sebastian Schipper
directed by: Sebastian Schipper
runtime: 138 min.
U.S. release date: October 9, 2015 (limited)
Watching “Victoria” is like the equivalent of not blinking for two hours – that is, if you could. It’s a film propelled by a gimmick, which is to follow a handful of characters in the wee small hours of the morning in Berlin using one long handheld take – by long, I mean the entire film is void of editing. It’s understandably loose and technically impressive and, at first, that seems to be all there is to it. Although the drama the titular character gets sucked into becomes very intense very quickly, for the viewer it becomes an endurance test, one that’s satisfying albeit quite tiring. Director Sebastian Shipper, who also co-wrote and co-produced, started out acting in “Run Lola Run”, so maybe his approach stems from that film. Well, this film lacks the kinetic pacing and lively camerawork of that film and it unfortunately takes a while to drum up any interest in what is happening to the characters. It’s a viewing experience that provided me with a renewed appreciation for editing and its use in visual storytelling.
While in Berlin from Spain, young cafe worker, Victoria (Laia Costa), is hit on one late night at a club by Sonne (Frederick Lau) and winds up carousing with the charming flirt and his friends, Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fub (Max Mauff), as they walk around the desolate city, drinking and hanging out on a rooftop. Victoria gradually develops a connection with the kind and gracious Sonne, after they steal beer from a market and make their way to a restricted rooftop. Just as they are about to part their ways, the eager-to-please Victoria agrees to serve as a driver to what is unknowingly a bank heist after a drunken Fub passes out. The job is done in a hurry with an adrenaline high for all and then panic sets in once police search the area for four thieves, finding Victoria and her new ‘friends’ desperately fleeing into the early morning hours in order to survive.
The film opens with the doe-eyed Victoria solo-dancing in the nightclub with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (who lensed “Rams” which premiered at last month’s Chicago International Film Festival and last year’s Kim Basinger thriller “The 11th Hour”, also shot in Germany) circling around her and following her from behind, as well as the Berlin boys she eventually hooks up. We’re underground, walking on streets, going up and down steps, inside a vehicle and in and out of a bank and a hotel. It may take some getting used to, but at no point will it make you queasy. If anything, Shipper’s approach to his real-time storytelling is hypnotic, even if it did make my eyelids heavy during the overlong first hour.
Shipper takes too much time introducing viewers to his shortlist of characters, focusing primarily on the budding chemistry between Victoria and Sonne and their late-night environment (thankfully, since the other three party-going stereotypes quickly wear out their welcome). Much of the ground covered The dialogue in Shipper’s screenplay, written Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Eike Frederik Schulz, feels believable, but what doesn’t feel real is how easily this young woman is persuaded to hang with these four male strangers at just about every turn they make. She’s clearly looking for friendship and is most likely lonely, but I can’t think of any outcome where such a scenario would turn out well for a young woman and indeed that’s what happens in “Victoria”.
Once Victoria agrees to serve as a driver for the men (in what is clearly a stolen vehicle) to help them with “a job”, the film kicks off into an intense downward spiral. Before that, we’re just suspicious of these German fellas and waiting for their real motives to show.
There is a great moment between Victoria and Sonne in the unopened cafe where she works, however, that takes place just before she gets behind the wheel. With the couple isolated from the other guys, Sonne is able to be himself – or is his intoxication bringing out his true colors? – showing a genuine interest as to who Victoria is. It feels like he’s starting to change from a guy who just wants to get in her pants, to someone who notices this woman’s talent as a pianist – after she plays Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz” – and interior pain from her past. There’s an indication that she’s insecure about this talent though, which may indicate that she feels accepted by this gang and admired by Sonne.
Costa and Lau are excellent in those scenes as Victoria and Sonne. Their work becomes psychologically complex as the intense second hour develops. As much as we become increasingly concerned for Victoria in these unplanned situations she finds herself in, she starts to show an edgy, adrenalized strength, proving more resourceful as Sonne or any of the other guys. It’s an interesting reversal for her character, one that’s born out of desperation and necessity and Costa is absolutely captivating to watch. She is wholly committed in her role and emotionally raw and, essentially, the reason “Victoria” works.
Due to the nonstop intensity of the second hour, I found myself wishing for an editor. In that sense, Schipper and Grøvlen succeeded in providing an immersive roller coaster ride that sucks us in, but it’s Costa’s performance that makes us stay buckled. They shot the film three times using a Canon C300 and they wound up going with the last take. Imagine shooting it all the way through three times – I cannot. Not for technical reasons, but because of what is physically and emotionally required of the actors. Schipper shot guerilla style. He had no permits, shot late at night with a crew that followed closely and ahead – blocking off vehicles and asking citizens to reroute themselves to ensure the camerawork would be uninterrupted.
The one-take approach here is not as stylized as last year’s “Birdman” and is a completely different film since there is a seamless shot, untouched by CGI. The filmmaking method used is fascinating (and crazy), but it’s not what held my interest. What interested me more about “Victoria” was the story taking place all within one time frame. That aspect reminded me of “Sleepless Night” one of my favorite thrillers of recent years.
It seems cliché to say, but this is definitely a film where the camera itself feels like a character. In many ways, with such a visceral and exhilarating film, it feels like that character is the viewer. In the end, the audience may wind up being just as exhausted as Victoria. I certainly left the film with a “how’d they do that” feel. Despite the length taken to establish the characters in the first hour, the payoff of “Victoria” can be found in its rare and unique execution and its lead performance.