In one single shot and one single take, Victoria covers a lot of ground – often literally – as it takes us on a tour of Berlin, its criminal underbelly, and the moral ambiguities of people in desperate situations. The production of the film is a story in itself, though one that many find detrimental to the fiction. Striving to have the film take place in real-time and choosing the early hours of the morning, Victoria does lend itself to little vivid backstory and few moments of breathing room when the narrative takes baby steps, awaiting the larger strides.
But as the stakes rise for the characters, it also rises for the actors and the crew to not make unsalvageable mistakes. Director Sebastian Schipper only shot Victoria three times, and it was that last attempt that had the dynamics that made the film come alive. While each actor and the cinematographer are clearly confident with their choreography, both in movement and in content, in the final film they blend vivacious spirit with careful efficiency.
On a routine night one, Victoria, a Spaniard living in Germany, bonds with a group of four friends, but is eventually recruited by them as an emergency getaway driver for a bank robbery. They then have to work together to deal with the swift justice of their sloppy escape. While its central robbery is just two minutes of its 140, Victoria does not waste any time thematically. Above all, it's a film about pushing limits. Of course, Schipper is pushing an extreme limit in ambitious film production, one that's only been available this past decade with digital possibilities. Meanwhile, Victoria is constantly pushing small limits herself.
While Victoria simply goes with the flow for the most of the film, drawn to the boys due to a lonely void she wants to fill as well as a desire to be accepted, it's one morally reprehensible act of taking charge of the situation in order to survive where the film comes to a thematic head. Do her actions make her morally corrupted? With the use of the media and witnesses, it studies Victoria from an inside and outside perspective. While the first hour or so of the film can strike impatience as it reveals little hints of the promised plot, the second half of the film is a panic- attack-inducing heart-stopper that more than makes up for the relative idling.
However, that sells short the magic of the first hour. Every performance is commendable the same way a participant in a long distance marathon has earned their medal. Laia Costa keeps her Victoria mostly reserved, playing off what the boys offer her, besides the film's emotional roller-coaster of a third act that's entirely piled on her. She does thoroughly impress in a stunning piano performance half-way into the film which I can only assume was on-camera and a result of Costa's own hidden talent as that would be hard to fake. The sound mixing of the film is its secret hero, as it also was for the clarity of Birdman.
Frederick Lau, Victoria's love interest Sonne, perhaps steals the show. He's one of those characters that at first you take an immediate dislike to due to his obnoxious personality, but as he peels back these human layers of Sonne, revealing a more sincere charm, we come to trust his attachment to Victoria as beyond obvious lust. The film feels out and unroots its emotional core between their romantic pursuit, along with ideas of Victoria's alternate life had she had a more fortunate past. Franz Rogowski as Boxer is the highlight of the supporting cast as he drives the story with unexpected sensitivity without overriding it from Costa and Lau.
Victoria will certainly draw comparisons to one-shot masterpieces Russian Ark and last year's Best Picture winner Birdman, but it that would be wholly unfair to pit them side by side. Birdman, like its content, is like a dynamic play; meticulously rehearsed, detailed, and gorgeously visualised in every frame and transition by Emmanuel Lubezki. Russian Ark is wide, expansive, and ambitious in different ways. Victoria is intimate and rugged, teetering on documentary-esque. The vibrancy of the performances and the meat of the story keep it from feeling amateurish, though they have to submit to the graininess of darker scenes.
However, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen, aptly credited first and foremost after the cut to black, always manages to find a well composed frame after any adjustment. The film offers something no other film can which is a sense of in the moment real consequences. The actors have to self-edit and let moments of comedy, drama, reaction and revelation flow into the next. In doing so, we get into the character's heads and mindsets, even if they're out of frame, more than if we had the fact that the actors are going home after this scene in the back of our minds. Instead, they have to deal with every moment they give and are given.
Victoria is one of the most pleasantly surprising marriages of style and substance, of which are both endearingly unpolished instead of overworked, that I've seen in a long time. It could be argued that it's simply a gimmick, though to its credit, it was conceived and shot before Birdman was released, but it's a film worth looking deeper at what it does in each of its moments. Despite having its collection of images within a single shot, it's an unforgettable experience where the intricate character details carved by the actors and Schipper are the moments that shine brightest. Exhilarating and tender in equal measures, Victoria is close to a masterwork and an experiment well worth uncovering.
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