Victoria is, quite simply, one of the most exhilarating pieces of pure cinema I have seen in a long, long time. If you were impressed by the lengthy single shots that open The Player or Touch of Evil, director Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria will blow you away. Or perhaps I should say cinematographer Sturla Brandth’s Victoria, given that his name appears on the credits before Schipper, no doubt because the film is genuinely shot in one single continuous take. Yes, really. Not pseudo one-take ala Birdman or Hitchcock’s Rope (where the end of reels were covered by obvious tricks such as moving the camera into the back of someone’s jacket), but absolutely authentically in one-take, for two hours and eighteen minutes. Perhaps in some cases there are benefits to shooting digitally instead of on 35mm.
If Victoria was an elaborate single take and nothing else, for all it’s technical prowess it could be dismissed as a gimmicky cinematic stunt. Yet the film’s beating heart centres around two superb performances: Laia Costa as the eponymous Victoria, and Frederick Lau as small time, in-over-his-head crook Sonne. Spanish Victoria is introduced in the pulsing, strobe lights of a Berlin nightclub, where she encounters Sonne for the first time. Via awkward conversations in English, he introduces her to his gang, and persuades her to join them in a tour of the “real” Berlin in the small hours of the morning. Victoria senses a kindly soul beneath Sonne’s arrogance and bluster, and they are immediately attracted to one another. This culminates in a wonderfully touching moment involving a piano in a café, but afterwards Victoria is drawn into the planning, execution and aftermath of a heist.
It is the characters that make this film work so well. Sonne and his gang are not necessarily the brightest bunch. In fact, in many ways they are highly annoying, especially in the first hour or so. Yet they are completely believable. Victoria herself may at first seem foolish, but there are important keys to understanding why she falls in with these crooks – piano keys, to be precise. Her sheltered life, loneliness and desperation for something outside of the mundane makes her, in my mind at least, an absolutely winning protagonist who you end up desperately rooting for.
Schipper has been influenced by everything from Before Sunrise to A bout de souffle yet the film nevertheless feels utterly singular. To be completely fair, the one-take thing has been done before (in films like Russian Ark for instance). However, this is the first time it has been used in such a challenging, visceral way, travelling to multiple real Berlin locations in a manner that genuinely adds power (and breathless exhaustion) to the story. Victoria doesn’t exactly contain any new or profound insights, and follows a well-worn genre path, but the largely improvised screenplay gives it real distinction, with some moments that were strictly speaking errors merely adding to the authenticity (for example, a wrong turn during a getaway sequence was apparently totally unplanned). Although the film starts slow, it builds to faster sequences that feel more dangerous and nail-biting than any number of slicker Hollywood action productions. Above all Victoria rises beyond the level of a first-rate genre piece simply by being really, really, really cool. Perhaps I should add here the standard warnings about swearing, drug use, some violence, etc, but to my mind everything was contextually justified.
Ultimately, this is an emotional rollercoaster of a film. It moves from talky improvised drama/comedy to romance, heist movie and thriller with a gut-wrenching power that will leave you reeling. I certainly felt like I’d been through the wringer by the end, and boy is this a film that makes you feel. It could well be a film that scars, given how upset I felt at the end to be leaving the company of Victoria and Sonne. Perhaps Victoria might even one day be considered a classic, but for now it is a vital, vibrant, cinematic out-of-body experience. And please, please do see it in a cinema. One thing Victoria proves is that despite the naysayers gloomily predicting the demise of the big screen due to the rise in television binge-watch drama, cinema remains the true faith.