Director: Sebastian Schipper
Cast: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit, Max Mauff, André Hennicke
Running Time: 2:18
Release Date: 10/9/15 (limited); 11/5/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 5, 2015
It might seem impossible, but it becomes quite easy to take the formal achievement of Victoria for granted. Here's why that should seem impossible: The film is a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute one-take that tells its story in real time. The primary reason one easily could take this accomplishment for granted is part of the reason the film works: It never draws attention to its gimmick.
To be perfectly frank, another reason we might feel indifferent about or not really notice the film's formal conceit is that there's a significant deal of time in which it doesn't seem like a big deal. This isn't a film that hits the ground running. It's more like a slow rise and gentle placement of feet on the ground, followed by a lengthy amble or saunter. One could be forgiven for spending about an hour of the film wondering why co-writer/director Sebastian Schipper decided on this particular approach for this particular story.
We might wonder, for example, why we need to see the characters wandering the streets of Berlin in the early morning hours or how characters riding an elevator to the roof of an apartment building tells us anything of significance about them or this story. The first act isn't necessarily sluggish, but without any hint of what's to come for these characters, we are only left to wonder what the point to all of it is.
Once the plot proper begins, though, we do understand the rationale. After the initial tension of the dynamic between a young woman and a rowdy group of guys eases, we're lulled into a sense of security. Then it's yanked away from us with increasing dismay.
The young woman is Victoria (Laia Costa), who has come to Berlin from Madrid. She is in the city for a three-month stay and works a minimum-wage job at a local café. On this particular morning, she is finishing her visit to a night club, where her joyous mood while dancing is almost instantly eroded when she stops at the club's bar. We note that Victoria is not only alone but also lonely. Her attempt to chat up the bartender ends almost as soon as it begins. With no one to whom to talk and nothing else to do, she grabs her coat and starts to leave.
That's when a young man named Sonne (Frederick Lau), who has been kicked out of the club with his buddies, continues to try to get her attention. He wants her to spend some time with them—mostly him, of course. It's his friend Fuss' (Max Mauff) birthday. His other friends Boxer (Franz Rogowski) and Blinker (Burak Yigit) are good company, too. She tells him that she has to work in a few hours, but Sonne is insistent.
There are, of course, two ways this encounter could go. They seem like nice enough—if a little loud and assertive and pretty drunk—guys. Those "ifs" are worth a bit of tension.
When they do reach the roof of the building where they live, they tell some stories. Boxer was in prison. Sonne was momentarily famous for being arrested for driving a car when he was a pre-teen. Blinker has a criminal background, too. They've done bad things, Boxer says, but they're good people.
There's one more important scene before things go haywire, and it confirms our suspicions about Victoria. After going to the café with Sonne, Victoria plays the piano for him, and she's incredibly talented. Sonne is speechless—only able to convey how her playing affected him by touching his heart. Whatever trepidation we might have had about him evaporates in an instant.
Victoria has been playing for over 16 years and had been studying piano at a conservatory. She didn't last, so the only thing she has to show for years of trying to become a pianist is a lot of nothing—no friends, no life, no dreams. Everything that has preceded this scene and, more importantly, everything that follows stem from this absence and the longing to fill it. Costa's finely tuned performance, which at first seems to be conveying a dangerously oblivious naïveté, gets straight to that longing. The danger that follows isn't a problem for her. It becomes more than a rite of joining this group. It's almost like an addiction.
The other guys arrive at the café, and Boxer, through Sonne, asks if Victoria will join them for a meeting. She agrees and asks if it'll be bad—but only after agreeing. It is, although no one knows it at the time. Boxer has a debt to pay, and the only way to pay it is to rob a bank.
At this point, the film becomes a showcase for Costa's performance, Schipper's managerial acumen (This demands a behind-the-scenes documentary), and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvien's technique, which is clearly coordinated to the inch and the second but comes across as fly-on-the-wall improvisation (Justifiably, he receives first billing in the end credits). It's not only that there are no edits here but also that Schipper and Grøvien make sure we notice the lack of cuts. If one wants to look for seams, prepare to come up emptyhanded (The tricks that one might expect to hide a cut—a momentary pause on an actor's back, pitch-black spaces, still shots in which nothing seems to be happening—are entirely absent). The thing moves with intimacy and immediacy, as the perfect plan goes wrong and the fallout becomes worse.
There's nothing particularly special about Victoria, but the form makes it so. This is high-wire filmmaking.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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