Tense and emotionally-charged, the highly-anticipated Victoria is a gripping journey that charts a young woman’s course through the dual sides of nighttime Berlin. It’s a vertiginous and bittersweet narrative arc which will ultimately drag its central character through the dangerous underbelly of the city and leave her a changed person entirely. In one single take, the story which unfolds over the course of the next 140 minutes, and which follows its five main protagonists across several miles of the German capital, encompasses a variety of powerful emotions and comes off as a major creative and logistical achievement.
Our eponymous heroine is a new arrival in the city, a Spanish twenty-something first seen dancing in an underground club, through a wall of disorientating strobe lights and a dense cluster of other late night revelers. The Madrileña is wide-eyed with youth, open and adventure-seeking, which helps make credible the initial plot premise – a prolonged encounter with the charismatic Sonne (German for ‘sun’) and his friends at the club entrance in the movie’s early scenes. These guys claim to be ‘real Berliners’ and promise to show the eager Victoria an authentic taste of the city, persuading the young girl to look past her impending work duties and join them whiling away the small hours in some favoured haunts nearby. Victoria can’t speak any German, so in a broken English she and this crew of unlikely new friends manage to communicate and understand each other.
The opening hour or so of Victoria unfolds in this kind of slow-moving, almost mumblecore way, devoting itself principally to character establishment and development as the two parties feel their way towards an amicable union by degrees. Each member of Sonne’s motely crew – the self-styled ‘bling bling’ Blinker, the hot-headed Boxer and the already-intoxicated Fuss – has his flash intro lines and his time on a street stage where most of the early interactions take place. Sonne tells Victoria that this band of brothers are like family to him, and it’s not long before she too is admitted into fold, as they come to refer to her as ‘Sister’ from there on in.
It’s quite obvious from the onset that Victoria and her newfound friends hail from fairly different walks of life – the young men’s irreverent bravado and stories of grand theft auto contrast sharply with Victoria’s hot-housed past in the Madrid Royal Conservatory where, in her own words, even as a child she “was like an old lady, always playing the fucking piano”. This personal information is mostly relayed in a drip-fed way, often punctuated by passages of diffuse action and playful exchanges between the characters as the nightlife party buzz still hangs in the air and the tone is kept relatively light.
But, like its title character, Victoria holds more than a few surprises in store and proves to have a lot more in its locker than the conventional coming-of-age picture it initially seems to serve up. Before Victoria knows it, her life behind glass (still very much evident when she watches the young men leave from the safe distance of the café she works in) is shattered, and she gets more than she initially wished for when Boxer has to ask for her help in repaying a ‘favour’ to someone who gave him protection during the few years he spent in prison. In a matter of minutes, she’s on the verge of being embroiled in a major bank heist, up close with a “real gangster” (Blinker’s words) in a guarded underground car park, where the young woman now finds herself a bargaining chip in discussions and referred to solely as ‘the Bitch’. There are some clues in the film’s loitering first half, which foreshadow or mirror some of these darker plot events which follow on from the preliminary phase of action, but the twists and detours taken by Victoria remain genuinely unexpected throughout.
The two hours and twenty minutes zip by. And this is as much a testament to the acting, choreography and overall organisation of the film’s recording than anything else (no doubt the almost two-and-a-half hour continuous shoot put intense strain on all involved, as one significant slip up could’ve scuppered the whole take). Nils Frahm’s poignant piano and strings score is used sparingly throughout the movie to very good effect – a short celebration scene towards the end, which will ultimately prove foolhardy, is so utterly absorbing that you almost forget everything else that’s gone before and vicariously join the group in their reckless abandon. But the real plaudits in this film must go to cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, whose rocky, handheld camerawork proves extremely effective in fulfilling the movie’s twin expressive purposes of emotional involvement and edge-of-your-seat thrill. Through a variation of focus shifts and extreme close-ups, Grøvlen, as much as anyone else in the movie, is able to keep the audience guessing for almost its entire duration. That Grøvlen’s name, rather unconventionally, appears first on the list of rolling credits at the end of the film speaks volumes of how important his work was to the success of this picture.
I’d be lying if I said the single-take concept didn’t send off a few warning signs in the back of my mind before going to see this film. Anything receiving as much hype as Sebastian Schipper’s movie was getting ahead of its UK release (which came well after its showings on the continent, in the States and on the festival circuit respectively) more often than not sets up for a disappointment at the cinema. Which is why I was so surprised at how absorbing this was, not to mention at how well the single take operated in service of the film’s narrative, rather than as a kind of promo gimmick. No doubt there are some improbable plot points in this film (quite a few, as it happens) and the dialogue may possibly frustrate some in places, but for a project that cost less than a million euros to make, Victoria is a runaway success.
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