With Victoria, the take is the thing. The third take, specifically. As anyone who’s heard about the movie already knows, Sebastian Schipper shot his fourth feature unbroken—his camera never cutting for two hours and 18 minutes as he tells the story of a young woman who gets mixed up in a stranger’s dirty deal. The film’s official synopsis boasts, “No cheap tricks. No expensive ones, either,” a reference to Best Picture winner Birdman, whose apparent single take was a clever illusion.
Whereas Birdman’s visual tricks—whether cheap or expensive—along with its soundtrack lent a propulsive fluidity to its action, the effect in Victoria is more subtle—and, because of the temptation to follow the camera instead of the story, an arguably distracting gimmick. Yes, the cast and crew pulled off a remarkable technical feat, filming that final take (after one that was too robotic and another that was overzealous) between 4:30 and 7 one morning in Berlin, reportedly without blocking and obviously with little allowance for the actors to flub either their lines or movements. For this, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is given the first credit at the film’s close, and it’s well deserved.
But would Victoria still be successful without this conceit? It’s likely. The titular character, played by Laia Costa, is introduced exuberantly dancing alone in a strobe-lit club. She’s a recent transplant from Madrid who doesn’t know anyone, so she decides to hang with a group of charming German guys she meets, despite the fact that they’re stealing a car as they make their introductions.
They goof around and drink beer on the streets while Sonne (Frederick Lau) flirts with the giggly and playful Victoria (who’s essentially a Spanish Amélie, if Amélie had a taste for bad behavior). When Victoria calls it a night so she can sleep some of it off before having to open a café at sunrise, Sonne accompanies her, and they share a moment after she plays a gorgeous piece on the café’s piano and reveals that, although it’s her dream to play professionally, she was kicked out of a conservatory for not being good enough. As Sonne takes a call, Victoria sobs.
That call—and one of the guys’ blackout drunkenness—leads to Victoria agreeing to be the driver for what she only later discovers is a bank heist, one that former convict Boxer (Franz Rogowski) must pull off as a favor for protection he received while in prison. This romance is now a thriller.
Victoria is exhilarating from start to finish: In the beginning, you feel the rush of a night out and getting to know someone new, talking well into dawn. Then there’s the urgency of the heist, though that’s planted in the script: The robbery must take place that morning, and there must be four people involved. Of course, the crime itself is heart-stopping, even though you don’t see it; instead, the camera stays with Victoria in the stolen car, the tension coming from the unknown.
A few scenes in the film are held too long, as if Schipper wanted to maximize his cut-free marathon. But in general, these two-plus hours of real time zoom by; the setup, not necessarily the untouched camerawork, is inherently compelling as you wonder where Victoria’s new friendships will lead. The cast is impressively natural—improvisation was encouraged—and Costa extremely appealing as an inquisitive and personable woman open to new experiences.
These ingredients are the bulk of what make Victoria entertaining and visceral; its single shot is more of an impressive asterisk, one that you forget about if your mind lets you.
Victoria opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda.