Cast: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Burak Yigit, Franz Rogowski, Maximilian Mauff
Director: Sebastian Schipper
Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Director Sebastian Schipper's Victoria will forever be labeled the "one-take movie." This is because, as advertised, the film unfolds over the course of 138-minutes in a single unbroken shot. Throughout the decades, filmmakers have experimented with the one-take format; Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, Russian Ark, the Oscar-winning Birdman from last year, but none can lay claim to Schipper's mind-boggling technical achievement here. But does the degree of extreme difficulty; with actors needing to hit their marks with precision and an entire plot that must be mapped out and meticulously rehearsed automatically translate into a successful film?Victoria is easy to overpraise because it does something that seems impossible from a technical standpoint and pulls it off, but there's a fundamental disconnect in terms of aesthetics and the actual story Schipper is trying to tell.
Things start promisingly with a sequence set inside a strobe-lit Berlin dance club, which provides a bit of smart character-building. Glimpsed through fog and flashing lights is the titular young woman (Laia Costa), who, in between sweaty bouts of dancing, runs around like someone for whom youthful exuberance is all that matters. The fact that she appears to be alone, ordering shots of whiskery and flirting with the bartender, creates an immediate impression that anything could happen to her. This is a nice setup, further complicated once she joins a group of roving, drunken young men after exiting the club. Upon learning that she's relocated to Berlin from Spain, the group; led by the charismatic Sonne (Frederick Lau) invite her to come along with them for more partying, which instantly gives the film a creepy rape culture subtext. Surprisingly, Schipper doesn't give into easy impulses and instead gradually reveals a growing connection between Victoria and Sonne, which is capped off with a few genuinely touching moments involving a piano inside a deserted cafe.
Unfortunately, the early goodwill is deflated simply because without cuts, Victoria is twice as long as it should be and feels even longer than it's actual running time, which is too long to begin with. For all the technical virtuosity on display; (cinematographer/ camera operator Sturla Brandth Grovlen gets top billing during the end credits and for good reason), this is nonetheless a story which has no real reason to be executed in this manner. In fact, it can be argued that the film's second half; which dips into genre heist territory, really should be played as a taut thriller, but Schipper's aesthetic eliminates any sense of tension because editing, as we all know, is crucial to the cinematic form of tension-building. Without such formal restrictions, Schipper is forced to fall in love with his own gimmick, and his film, despite Costa's committed central performance and the herculean efforts of the crew, falls apart under it's own limited pretensions. It's one thing to admire a technical accomplishment; it's quite another to fathom why this particular story, which is skeletal to start with, deserves such epic treatment. Perhaps the answer, which no one really wants to hear, is that Victoria probably wouldn't be worth making otherwise. There's really not much there.
One could make the argument that Schipper is attempting to mimic reality by not allowing the audience a chance to escape through standard editing and normative story beats. But cinema has always intrinsically been tied to meaning through imagery; by the way compositions are juxtaposed against one another and how time can be condensed into a feeling or an emotional state of mind. Victoria can never be as powerful or as resonant as other films dealing in similar terrain because it mistakenly thinks that allowing us to observe something play out in its entirety is somehow more realistic, or in the case of the film's back half, intensely thrilling. In fact, it's all a big cheat anyway since movies have always been constructed fantasies and Victoria is one of the biggest artificial constructs ever attempted. That it achieves it's end goal is impressive in a geek-centric film student kind of way, but the actual story being told doesn't add up to much. There's a reason films have traditionally used editing as a storytelling tool, and although it's a bold decision to buck convention, Schipper's picture feels a bit like a drunken dare. It's ultimately too enamored with it's own elaborate construction to bother pondering the immortal lines from Jurassic Park spoken by Ian Malcolm, "they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn't stop to think if they should."