Victoria Dir. Sebastian Schipper

[Adopt Films; 2015]

Styles: drama, thriller
Others: Russian Ark, Birdman, Timecode

If there is a case study to be made for the defense of extremely long takes, both as a technique and an aesthetic effect, it may be Victoria, a bad movie with inconsistent use of its single, 150-minute take that nonetheless completely justifies that central “gimmick.” On paper, there’s nothing wrong with the match-up of the endless shot to Victoria’s content: the eponymous Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Spanish émigré in Berlin, is heading home after partying into the early morning when she meets a group of young, delinquent men. She joins them, flirts with them, and cavorts with them in the near-dawn hours, until she’s ensnared in a sudden bank heist and its aftermath. It’s as big a leap as it seems from setup to set piece, and if the film fails in making that leap, it’s less due to a plan to never cut than it is to a lack of a plan to never cut.

Victoria’s camerawork has its weaknesses, but its occasional struggles to find a workable frame or to cover dramatic (and reportedly improvised) moments of dialogue are far outnumbered by the moments when the camera stays locked on-target and imports a palpable sense of presence to the audience. It’s an active, draining presence that emphasizes the physical languor of an all-nighter with its demonstrative insistence on real-time narrative (as opposed to Alexander Sokurov’s fleet and chronologically amorphous single-shot feature Russian Ark).

As the night continues, Victoria becomes more tired and emotionally vulnerable, forestalling sleep as she searches for the emotional catharsis wanted by anyone who’s ever stayed up from sunset to sunrise. Eventually, she sits at a piano to serenade one of her twilight companions, the de facto group leader Sonne (Frederick Lau), with a surprisingly virtuosic performance. After finishing, she reveals that she had practiced the instrument unceasingly throughout her childhood, only to be rejected from a music conservatory and locked out of her lifelong ambition for good. This might be the best scene, and at the very least it’s the one that most effectively illustrates the two characters and seems to change them: Sonne is visibly moved, and he becomes protective of Victoria and guilty over his criminal lifestyle; Victoria spills tears when he’s not looking. (Despite the emotional displays of the latter, it’s Lau’s tense, thinly hidden sorrow that makes his performance the best of the cast.)

A good scene, yes, but on its own it forms a flimsy dramatic motivation for the heist that follows, because Victoria enthusiastically and implausibly offers to join in, which the team accepts to Sonne’s disgust and immediate regret. It’s a big twist that simply does not flow into what came before: the film establishes its lead as a woman who’s lost her dreams and who’s willing to commit entirely to whatever she invests herself in, but in spite of her humble work as a barista, it doesn’t establish her as someone with nothing to lose and everything to gain.That fatal disconnect bisects the film into a low-key character study and a melodramatic thriller. Each half taken on its own is decent; together, they are… decent.

What makes this especially frustrating is that Victoria does not have a densely packed runtime. Long sequences follow characters from one location to another, or watch them dance at a club while things happen just outside. Sometimes these sequences have a melancholic piano soundtrack that offer some kind of existential weight, but they have no more to reveal after three minutes than they did after ten seconds, and so their musical scoring (there and elsewhere) comes off pretentious.

Maybe such filler scenes could have been used to better communicate the character detail that justifies the crime and punishment of the climax. A more detailed mise en scène, more revealing dialogue, or more eloquent camerawork or maybe even a hard edit here and there. But it seems like director Sebastian Schipper would be goddamned if he was gonna shorten Victoria’s pointlessly lengthy dead zones with a cut. If so, he’s not entirely wrong to make that call, because being exhausted and listless at the end of it all is one of its the neatest rewards. At the same time, the long take is peppered with mistakes, and its script’s deficiencies can’t be solved with a virtuoso technical display of artistry, be it the rollicking pianism of the title character or the hyper-extended camera operation — moments that work great on paper, but can’t paper over the hole in Victoria’s center.

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