Published on November 27th, 2015 | by Nathan Raine0
Victoria, the new film from German filmmaker Sebastian Schipper, is so ambitious that it’s all one shot — but does ambition that excuse its flaws?
Does a formidable execution of a high concept necessarily absolve any of the related flaws along the way? I have no idea. But an answer to that question might determine whether Victoria’s blindingly ambitious concept mark its shortfalls as excusable.
That concept is a doozy: shoot a party-romance-heist-getaway film in one single take. Victoria, the newest from German filmmaker Sebastian Schipper, is a 138 minute film comprised of one 138 minute shot. Aesthetically, it’s drawing comparisons to Birdman, but their respective executions of the one-take concept/gimmick couldn’t be more dissimilar. Schipper has no desire to reconstruct the sneaky wipes and tricks to hide edits, as well as the precise, ornate, ballet-like camera movement of Birdman. Simply put, if Birdman has wings, Victoria has leaden feet. It’s a clunkier, freer, noticeably handheld take on the one-shot concept. Its apologists will call it raw. Its critics, nauseating.
Victoria begins with its title character [Laia Costa], a young Spanish woman, drowned in the music and strobe lights of a night club dance floor. We’ve seen this scene before; you expect her to be blissfully lost in the music, but, she’s clearly cognizant of her milieu, even her appearance. She fixes her hair while dancing on her own, then after flicking it around a few times, fixes it again. It’s a clever introduction. It lets us know she’s lonely, yet ready for those conditions to be changed, ready to be noticed. She’s vulnerable. It’s this vulnerability that propels the entire movie.
As if to confirm this want, the camera follows her to the bar, where Victoria makes a guarded attempt to flirt with the oblivious bartender. She does a shot of vodka by herself before leaving the club for good – the kind of thing we do when we want to drown out the memory of the night, or, hope that there’s some still to be made. Outside she finds what she’s looking for. Four men holler at her from the sidewalk, “real Berlin guys” who insist on showing her “the real Berlin.” What Schipper likely intended on being a playful interaction comes off as quite rapey. Regardless, it doesn’t take much coaxing for to convince her to join them on a drunken tour. She’s young, lonely, and a little naive. Why not?
From there, Victoria and her four new friends spend a considerable chunk of time wandering through the dark streets, drinking beers, sneaking onto rooftops. According to Schipper, the dialogue was largely improvised, and it’s in this first act where some of those exchanges are at their most noticeably uncooked. Victoria and Sonne [Frederick Lau] build some nice sexual tension, but aside from establishing character and setting, the narrative entirely waits on ice. Vonnegut famously once wrote of story writing: “start as close to the end as possible.” Schipper must not be familiar, because Victoria starts about an hour before story is even considered.
Finally, Victoria launches into it’s long delayed narrative: Sonne and his pals must settle a debt tonight by conducting a bank heist. Their creditor, some shadowy underworld figure, demands the robbery be executed by a foursome. When one of their friends becomes too drunk, it’s Victoria who willingly, and somewhat inconceivably, agrees to take his place.
It’s evident that Victoria is both an achievement visually and logistically. Schipper takes us through the hypnotic jarrings of a nightclub scene, the nervous tensions of love, an intense bank heist, and several tragedies, all linked together through the continuous flow of this singular shot. It doesn’t break to allow us to refocus, or give sudden shifts in perspective or place, thus feels more like life, like we’re witnessing something in real time. It’s a quite immersible experience, and one that I would argue would not exist outside of its technical approach.
Yet, that approach also the catalyst for a handful its problems. Nearly every scene, as well as the entirety of the first act, has spans of time that grow stale. Because the film plays out in real time, we’re obliged to watch the entirety of a car or elevator ride, every traverse across a long hallway or street. Schipper inadvertently makes us beg for some of the narrative to actually unfold, and, perhaps even, makes us thankful that not all films are made without the merciful hand of an editor.
The story is what’s most polluted by the one-take concept. Victoria is perpetually forced to make far-fetched decisions simply to justify the plot’s forward movement. Schipper inserts a piano scene in the middle of the film, revealing a possible source to Victoria’s vulnerability. It’s a little bit moving, and a lot bit manipulative — the filmmakers needing to defend Victoria’s consistent lack of judgement. One could even accuse it of having an idiot plot [a plot which depends on the characters being idiots in order for the action to continue. If they hadn’t been idiots, the problem would be solved and movie over]. The film continually relies on Victoria to ignore that blatantly obvious decision that the audience is begging her to make. The problem is conceptual. Schipper’s story and setting was ostensibly constructed around this one-take gimmick — and in order to keep extending the shot, Victoria is necessarily devoid of any real sense of judgement.
But what is lost in its gimmick is also gained in the energy and immediacy that the single take creates. Victoria gives the impressions of ideas, characters, and stories that are not predetermined but alive. It captures that 4AM feeling when everything is charged with possibility. While not so masterfully executed that it overshadows all flaws, watching the strings being pulled to carry out it’s grandiose concept is entirely worth the experience. At least for the first shot.