The long-shot is a filmmaking technique that has found itself back in vogue in the past few years. Knowing what one even is would normally be the kind of technicality confined to the likes of film-student GeekDom. The use of an extended take across a series of locations which would normally be divided by post-production cuts though is a rare example of a directorial styling which has crossed over to mainstream consciousness. Pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock’s nine-take The Rope, the likes of Martin Scorsese and Gaspar Noe have directed iconic sequences in the form – but it was Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 2014 project Birdman which really brought the technique back to the fore (with contribution from Cary Joji Fuknunaga’s infamous one-take massacre which capped off Episode 4 of HBO drama True Detective in the same year). Sebastian Shipper’s 138 minute Victoria makes those examples look showy by comparison. Though it ran the normal risk that its style may act as crutch for an otherwise unremarkable picture, this German thriller transpired to be one of the least reliant on its technical prowess: and the novelty which probably got the viewers’ bums on seats in the first place took a backseat to a completely immersive narrative .
Though it’s probably only the second most inventive use of the one-take, just behind 2000’s Timecode which played four whole continues takes side by side at once, there’s been a lot of hubbub about the production of this film: and rightly so. Its stellar six-person principle cast, led by Laia Costa and Frederick Lau, performed the film across twenty-two locations scattered around central Berlin on the 27th April 2014 from 4:30am. Improvising all the dialogue from a bare bones script, they took three goes to get the pacing of the film just right. Unlike Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, with which Shipper’s films have drawn comparisons, this is no walk-and-talk ramble either – it’s actually a surprisingly ambitious production: featuring car chases, a luxury hotel, a tower block and a shootout. The staging of the film is also remarkably effective at working with the natural confines of the premise: our protagonist is Spanish so exposition can be provided by the German speaking characters whilst she is kept in the dark, while the warm streetlights of the opening hour naturally fade to the bleak greys and blues of early morning as events turn sour.
Pivotally though, the film’s worth doesn’t begin and end with the means by which it was shot – an oversight the makers of the Oscar winning The Revenant from earlier this year never saw coming. Instead the single take prowess of Victoria actually falls into the background as the plot unfurls – the performances are too good, the characters too interesting and the simple plot dynamic enough to suck the viewer in and cling on until the end. Laia Costa is raw and grounded as the titular Victoria – the effectiveness of a single-take that allows events to unfurl as they would to participants facile if it weren’t for her utterly convincing turn. Gangster Sonne is softened by a nuanced performance from Frederick Lau, who shows at once the ego and heart of the misguided criminal. The Richard Linklater comparisons are a little easy but the leads in Victoria really do possess the same natural chemistry of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the Before films – one pivotal, and humanising scene between the two in her café makes or breaks the investment in the two felt by the audience, and absolutely nails it.
What follows this masterful scene however is the plot twist which is perhaps the biggest failing of Shipper’s film. About halfway through the movie the loveable-rogues Victoria affiliates herself with actually reveal themselves to be flat out criminals, on the way to commit a crime. That the protagonist, who was previously portrayed as being a free-spirited, but actually rather sensible young woman, could be corralled into helping them by Sonne when they suddenly need a driver is a questionable – but her insistence that she actually wants to seems completely out of character. The fact that after the act she joins in the gang’s absolute jubilance is even more dumbfounding. Expecting to spend most of the film wondering ‘how the hell did they film that?’, I actually spent more time thinking ‘what the hell is she doing?!’ It’s foolish to expect characters in the films we see to have any kind of moral compass, but when a character has already been established as having a fairly healthy conscience, such great leaps are hard to swallow and continue to bug the rest of the film throughout.
As much as Victoria largely succeed in making a feature more than the sum of its technical accomplishments, this does seem like a symptom of the form in which Shipper decided to make his film. Where normally a screenplay can spend weeks developing the corruption of character, here everything had to happen within the space of two hours – and in the end moments such of these felt rushed and hard to forgive. Ultimately though, Victoria remains a film of substance, with phenomenal performances and a gut-punch of a denouement. For the majority of its run time (which races by), its novelty style actually contributed to the content of the movie, while a minimal score from Nils Frahm imbued even the tenderest of early moments with a sense of dread. I wonder whether there yet remains a film to be seen which marries a single filmmaking technique with strong thematic integrity, but Victoria is one of the strongest efforts so far: with just a few stretch marks along the way.
Theodore J Inscoe.