Director: Sebastian Schipper
Major Players: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau
Out Of Five: 4
The poster doesn’t lie. “One city. One night. One take.” And that’s Victoria in a nutshell. The film caused a huge stir when it was released in cinemas last month and could well do the same with its arrival on DVD tomorrow. Because it literally does what Birdman imitated – shoot a film in one long take.
In reality, it took three long takes to make the film, and what we see here is the third and final one, shot in late April 2014 in the early hours of the morning and lasting 134 minutes. The screenplay was very short – only 12 pages – because there’s very little scripted dialogue. So most of the acting is improvised and, as it turns out, the words “seat” and “pants” could be applied to some of the technical side as well.
Victoria (the excellent Laia Costa) is originally from Spain and working in a coffee shop in Berlin, which is the city. She hasn’t been there long so has yet to make any friends and goes to a night club, where she comes across a group of four local guys. She gets friendly with them, they continue drinking away from the bar and she gets on especially well with Sonne (Frederick Lau). But a phone call changes everything in seconds. One of the group is in debt to a local villain and now it’s payback time. And it all leads to that one night – and the early morning – spiralling out of control.
Initially, we’re lulled into a false sense of security, with the relationships established at a leisurely pace. The guys have been drinking and are silly, perhaps reckless, but pretty much inoffensive. Victoria is the sober one and surprisingly trusting of them, given that she witnesses their attempts to steal a car. That’s the first hint that there’s more to them than laddish messing about. When they briefly come across two other locals, it’s clear that there’s something going on underneath the surface that neither we nor she understand. One of her new friends, Boxer (Franz Rogowski), clearly both knows them and they nearly come to blows. But apart from those moments, you wonder where it’s all going to lead. It all takes up more time than it actually needs. Stick with it.
Once we get past all of that, we’re into the nightmare that makes up the rest of the film, one that’s gripping and full of emotional extremes – panic, euphoria, grief, anger, despair. And, because most of it is improvised, the cast aren’t so much acting the story as living it for just over two hours, inhabiting their characters as if they were on stage but with the subtleties demanded of working in front of the camera. It’s grippingly convincing and the hand held camera, along with the blue and grey colour palette, adds to both the tension, the increasing desperation and sense of doom.
Part of that tension comes from the instinctive knowledge that the guys are going to make bad, if not stupid, decisions, so everything is going to get worse. And Victoria, despite seeming trustingly naïve at the start and completely losing it at one point, is the practical, resourceful one, with a survivor’s instinct that will stand her in good stead. She’s in a very different world from her life back in Spain, where she studied the piano at the conservatoire but had her hopes of being a concert pianist dashed when she was told she just wasn’t good enough. All it takes is just one moment to change the course of anybody’s life: in Victoria’s case, it was when she left the club with Sonne and his friends.
Don’t get too hung up on the film having been made in one take. It’s a massive technical achievement and gives the film spontaneity, immediacy and a sense of it being rough around the edges, messy even. So it’s reflecting life and this particular slice of it. But, putting that aside, it’s a heist story, one with a general feeling of unease as well as the mandatory tension and heart racing moments.
It ends in the grey light of a misty morning, as Victoria walks away from the camera, and in near silence. That eerie peace is essential to let your shoulders relax and let the tension drift away. Because they’ll have been hunched up under your ears.
Victoria is released on DVD on Monday, 23 May and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 26 May.