Victoria is a very, very good film about people who make very, very poor decisions. And that’s okay. Really, it’s okay to watch a movie about people who spend 138 minutes of their lives making bad choices. Faulty character choices isn’t necessarily faulty filmmaking. In the best hands, such choices are realistic depictions of people with particular flaws. The titular character in Victoria, played harrowingly by Laia Costa, makes a lot of choices throughout the film that you may not agree with. In fact, I let out an “Ohh, nooo” early in the movie, partly because I thought Victoria was acting stupidly, but mostly because I really cared about her and didn’t want her to get hurt. And that’s the difference. That’s the character balance good films know how to achieve. They make you care about someone, as opposed to making them knife bait to setup the next kill.
After I got to know and care about Victoria, I completely believed that she was naïve enough to let her drunken curiosity motivate her lack of judgment. So that’s my counter to the mild criticism facing Victoria; backlash you may not have even heard about, if you’ve heard of the film at all. If you have heard of Victoria, it’s likely for one very substantial reason: the film is 138 minutes long and was shot in one unbroken continuous take.
To repeat for emphasis: the entirety of Victoria takes place in one unbroken shot. No special effects, no quick pans to mask hidden editing cuts (the Birdman method), no gimmicks, no tricks – really, the entire fucking movie is one shot. It’s a 138 minute story shot and told in real time. Real time in which we watch a young woman and her new friends enjoy a drunken night in Berlin, until that night turns into a nightmare.
On April 27, 2014, German filmmaker Sebastian Schipper and his astounding cinematographer (who gets lead billing in the film’s closing credits), Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, used the hours between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. to shoot Victoria in a few square blocks of Berlin. They had tried and succeed twice before, but Schipper wasn’t pleased with the results. The first take of Victoria was too cautious, and the second was too frantic. The third attempt, which, again, is the entire fucking film, is what we see on screen. And what we see on screen is pure brilliance.
It would be so easy for a movie executed like Victoria to stay calm. Long periods of time could go by where the camera simply sits in the corner and captures an extended conversation. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Grøvlen’s camera goes up tiny attic steps and rests on elevators, it runs in the streets and dances in clubs. It assumes Costa’s point of view and tracks her in glorious close-up. It gets in the back seat of cars, hides in dangerous stairways, and on and on and on. The camera in Victoria doesn’t know how to slow down, which keeps the story moving and evolving. Sure, there are lengthy conversations in the movie, but because Victoria has been marketed as a thriller, the laws of film tell us that at some point, things will begin to go wrong. Which they do, to thrilling results.
The stateside release of Victoria is a bit upsetting. The film barely got a push in major cities, and remains unseen in smaller markets. News recently dropped that it lost out as Germany’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, which means it’s unlikely that Victoria will get a fresh theatrical push come awards time. Damn shame. Victoria should be considered for, and win, every possible award for cinematography this year, but moreover, this is a film worth seeing because of its story, and the lead character running amok in it.
To be clear. The technical aspects of Victoria are literally jaw-dropping; I will be studying this film for years and years. (And it’s not just the cinematography, Nils Frahm’s music, accompanied by some DJ Koze tracks, is close to being the best score of the year.) But technicality only gets you so far. To be good, to mean something, to matter, you have to tell a good story. Victoria tells one, thanks much in part to its fearless lead character. Laia Costa, who I’ve never seen before, leaves everything on the screen. Her naïveté and playfulness, her dread and overwhelming fear – it’s all there. She’s a warrior, a force, she is… Victoria. And that’s what matters most. A
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