This one-take wonder isn't likely to be remembered for anything other than being one long take.
Much like the heist at the centre of the film, Victoria is a bit of a risky, high-wire act in and of itself. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, where its audacious gimmick earned the film’s cinematographer an award: the entire 140-minute film plays out in one take, with no cuts or digital trickery involved. This inevitably lumps Victoria into a group of recent films that utilize digital filmmaking to push duration and shot length to new extremes (one of the first examples of this, and probably the most notable one, was Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark). But once again, like with Birdman and this year’s The Tribe, the praise lavished upon director Sebastian Schipper is less about the quality of his film than the quantity of work put into it. As a piece of stunt directing, Victoria is easy to admire; as a film it’s an overlong drag, with its one take gimmick serving as a distraction from its inept story.
Opening on the titular character (Laia Costa) partying it up in a nightclub, she eventually leaves to go open up the café she works at. On her way, she bumps into Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his three friends, who drunkenly ask her to hang out with them after failing to steal a car in front of her. She (inexplicably) accepts their offer, and as they walk through the streets of Berlin, she tells Frederick about herself: She’s an immigrant from Spain, having just arrived in the city several weeks ago without any friends. For some reason, Schipper and co-writers Olivia Neergaard-Holm & Eike Frederik Schulz think that being an immigrant in a new city means losing one’s ability to think; after watching Sonne steal from a corner store, and then learning his hot-tempered friend Boxer (Franz Rogowski) just got out of jail, Victoria happily follows them to hang out on a rooftop for drinks. By this point, logic has all but vanished, and Victoria’s actions are more like transparent moves by the filmmakers to sustain a narrative than realistic bad choices of an actual human being.
The only excuse given for Victoria’s dismissal of the figurative danger signs flashing over these four men is her attraction to Sonne, which gets little development before Schipper drops it to get the real story going. After one of Sonne’s friends passes out from drinking too much, he asks Victoria to help drive him and his friends to some sort of meetup. She (once again, inexplicably) agrees to drive and winds up aiding in a bank robbery when a crime lord orders Boxer to steal a bunch of money to pay off his debts. And so these four idiots drive off, hoping to score some cash from their barely thought out scheme. Will their robbery turn out unsuccessful? Follow up: Does a bear shit in the woods?
There’s no denying that Victoria is one dumb movie, but its stupidity is far more tolerable than the likes of Birdman or The Tribe, which use their penchant for long takes to give themselves the appearance of being serious art. Victoria doesn’t really aspire to be anything more than a self-contained genre piece, and that makes its silliness both easy to swallow and easy to make fun of at the same time. Yes, these characters are so incompetent it’s easy to think they were home schooled by their own pets, but this makes it perversely enjoyable to watch their plans (rightfully) fall apart.
But maybe it’s a little unfair to pick apart the screenplay since little effort went into it (due to the nature of the production, dialogue had to be largely improvised—making the screenplay only a few pages). There should be a special mention for cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, since he pulls off a superhuman feat (indeed, in the end credits his name gets acknowledged before anyone else’s). It’s easy to marvel at what he pulled off, but it also goes to show why the one-take gimmick is difficult to sustain. By unfolding in real time, the ability for elliptical editing goes away, meaning that a large chunk of Victoria is made up of interludes, with characters traveling from point A to point B. All the time spent walking to another location, or waiting around in one area for the next story beat to come along, exposes the weak structure and mechanics of the whole operation. Nils Frahm’s score provides some nice music during these “down” moments, but it’s hard to shake the feeling of being stuck in some sort of cinematic waiting room.
Still, as always, the technical fortitude on display from pulling off a successful feature-length take makes Victoria not without merit. And Laia Costa does a great job too, fighting off her poor characterization with a charisma that helps when she goes into full-on survival mode post-heist. Her presence certainly helps when Victoria seemingly doesn’t know what to do with itself. There’s something funny about the single take—a choice usually meant to make it easier to immerse oneself into a film—as it actually shows off the artifice of this film. Which isn’t surprising given how thinly drawn out Victoria feels. There’s little else appealing here aside from this singular gimmick, and once people stop being impressed by that, it’s not likely to stay memorable. One-take wonder indeed.
Originally published as part of our coverage for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.