by Jennifer Watson
Victoria is an independent German film directed by Sebastian Schipper, and it’s a film which becomes somewhat problematic to review when you discover its principal defining feature:
It was filmed in a single 138 minute take.
Discussing the process of trying to get the film played at festivals, Schipper claims that both Toronto and Sundance turned it down as they simply didn’t believe its director’s one-shot claim, and whilst a bit unfair, it’s more than understandable.
Victoria, in terms of the pure filmmaking mechanics, is a masterpiece. So much so, it almost seems inconceivable that it was accomplished at all.
The audience is introduced to the eponymous struggling student whilst dancing in a grungy underground club in Berlin, before she then encounters four locals who change the course of her night drastically. We then follow Victoria from 4:30 to 7:00am, during which she navigates city by foot, bicycle and car, the camera never leaving her side.
I went in knowing next to nothing about the plot, and I think, ideally, that’s how you should see the film.
So, I’m a little reticent to reveal too much, however for the purposes of this review I want to discuss the film in more depth. Consequently, if you’ve yet to see the film, maybe stop reading and come back later. If you have seen it, these are my thoughts.
The one-shot premise has gained prominence in the last few years, a prime example of its use being the Oscar winning Birdman. However, the use of the technique in that film, for me, felt gimmicky. It doesn’t really serve the narrative particularly well and has the unfortunate effect of creating a feeling of style over substance. More importantly, Birdman’s one-shot isn’t really a one-shot at all, it was created by clever editing tricks to make it look like a single take when it’s actually stitched together.
As previously mentioned, this is not the case with Victoria!
With Shipper’s film the audience undertakes the actual passage of real-time alongside its main character, and as a result, the decisions she makes seem that much more plausible.
On paper, the idea that a young woman could meet four strangers on the street and then spontaneously decide to help them rob a bank half an hour after being introduced, as the film gradually depicts, seems ludicrous. But the fact that the camera follows Victoria from minute to minute as she makes this decision makes us believe in the possibility. Whilst I did find myself questioning why someone would do this, I readily accepted that they had.
Therefore, Victoria (Laia Costa) should perhaps be seen more of a character study than heist move. Yes, we watch as she becomes the getaway driver for a robbery (which, as I’m sure you can guess, inevitably goes wrong), but what became more interesting than the ensuing police chases, for me, was Victoria’s rapidly changing state of mind.
We begin with a lonely young woman, seemingly friendless in the big city, and end with a woman capable of stealing another woman’s new-born baby in order to save both herself and her companion’s skin.
Schipper cleverly foreshadows Victoria’s evolving character, one example being when she and the leader of the robbers, and her romantic interest, Sonne (Frederick Lau), mutually decide to leave a sleeping store owner to his rest rather than waking him to pay for their beer. It’s subtle, but it aids your acceptance of the events to follow.
As you may recall, I began this review by stating that Victoria is a problematic film to review, and the reason for that is because so much of what I think is fantastic about it is tangled with its style. If you take away the filming choice of the one-shot, would the film be anywhere near as absorbing? Would the characters themselves be as interesting? Possibly not.
As a heist move, Victoria isn’t ground-breaking, but as a character study of a woman’s gradual descent into criminality, brilliantly realised by Schipper’s choice of a single-take narrative which he nails with astonishing skill and precision, it’s genius.