Director: Sebastian Schipper
Starring: Laia Costa, Frederik Lau, Franz Rogowski
Words: J. Wood
Victoria is the most unexpected of success stories and, at less than a third of the way through the year stands as a very strong contender for Best Film of 2016. The film starts out steeped in mundanity, the titular character, a Spanish café worker living in Berlin leaves the electrifying atmosphere of an underground nightclub, and in doing so meets four guys. There is something not quite right about them but soon enough the audience, like Victoria warms to them and the film seems to be playing out like a paean to the city of Berlin. Then something happens, the film heads off in completely different directions, to underground parking lots, into cars down abandoned dawn streets, residential areas and hotels, and all this is done in one single take.
Just let that sink in for a moment, one take. That’s right, the film follows these relatively inexperienced actors through their nighttime Berlin odyssey in its entirety for two and a quarter hours without stopping for breath, without cutting, editing. That already sounds impressive until you see some of the shots and locations in which the camera finds itself. Save for a few minor stumbles or brief losses of focus Sturla Brandth Grovlen manages to move his camera from the pounding electronic settings of the nightclub, into all night newsagents, lifts, cars, cafes, garages, hotel rooms, apartments, and all across the streets of Berlin. He is able to take in terrifying gangland confrontations, a heist that reminds you of the sequence in Spring Breakers where a restaurant is held up, seen from the driver’s perspective as she circles the robbery waiting for her charges to return to their getaway vehicle, and a shootout through a residential area. You tend to think of films as scenes and yet this film is a series of sequences strung together in one single scene, and the way in which the plot unravels over a real-time sequence is breathtaking to behold.
Of course how easy it would be to dismiss all this as a gimmick to sell a less than impressive film. My opinion on this is that yes, it would if the film were not so honest in how it tells its story. You appreciate the little stumbles and blurred seconds more because it only adds to the authenticity that the film exudes. Compare this to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, a fine and enjoyable film but sold on a similar exercise that is a gimmick, given that it is painstakingly edited to remove any blemishes to its perfection. Victoria is more akin to my personal favourite film of all time, Boyhood, in that it is an easily marketed film thanks to its Unique Selling Point and yet it has the substance and intelligence to back it up.
The Boyhood connection does not end there. When I first saw this film I immediately found myself describing it as Linklater slowly and surely merging into Tarantino, and I stand by that quote. The film is rather slow to set off into what is billed as a heist thriller, instead pleasantly ambling through early morning suburban Berlin, lovingly portraying the city and giving a real world view of it rather than a movie view, which helps it to slowly and surely become a character in the film itself. The film spends its first movement as the cerebral and yet thoughtful walk and talk movie style Linklater has so perfected in his Before trilogy, and really captures the essence of the characters before allowing the film to turn on one moment into a middle act that is in equal parts Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run, the aforementioned Spring Breakers and Michael Mann’s Heat. The finale is how I would imagine the works of Nicolas Winding-Refn or Tarantino.
This does all sound like a real car crash of a movie and yet it works because of Laia Costa, the young Spanish actress who carries the weight of the film on her shoulders. The camera may not be on her for the entirety of the movie, it does spin around at junctures to examine the other characters, but unlike anyone else she is always in the location of the camera, and she handles the pressure with astonishing maturity. The Linklater-esque opening is key to the film’s success. This is a narrative that is built around a moment of reckless stupidity, a decision that had you not seen the precursor to its making you would never have invested in it in the way the film needs to. The whole opening act is designed to make Victoria a real person, a bit reckless and carefree but someone wholly enjoyable to be around and, importantly, sympathetic. Her chemistry with Frederick Lau is an important cornerstone that cements the character, and the scene in which she tells him, emotively about her failed dreams of pianist stardom is not only a fantastic piece of acting but also justifies the rest of the film.
From there Costa just exudes the air of someone totally out of her comfort zone, which I guess she really was given the nature of the film. From terrifying confrontations with gangsters, to the tensest sequence you could possibly think of involving a stalled car I found myself genuinely nervous I was that invested in her predicament. Even in spite of the dark turns the character and film take, even as you implore her not to take certain courses of action you desperately hope they pay off for her. Hers is one of the finest performances I have seen from an actress in some time and I genuinely hope that this opens doors for her. Equally Lau is very good as her companion Sonne, whilst the rest of the young actors are very good at essaying a youthful exuberance that very quickly leads them out of their depth.
Even at the moments when the improvised dialogue does not quite have the desired effect the simplicity of the narrative and the atmosphere of the film are enough to overcome this. For a thriller this is a remarkably still and unhurried film, action sequences are few and far between and lack the unwanted kinetic tone that many thrillers are wont to unnecessarily use. Given the nightclub opening I had expected a pounding dance music score yet as the film develops Nils Frahm’s score truly understands the aim and compliments it with a wonderfully varied score that serves as a blessed relief from what could have been too overbearing an accompaniment to an otherwise wonderful film. The film’s final scene is so understated it is almost forgettable, but then you realise that director Sebastian Schipper’s intention with the film was not only to make a good, strong, female-led thriller but to showcase Berlin in an affectionate yet brutally honest way, something he has succeeded in doing with ease. One thing is for certain, after making a near flawless film of such gargantuan technical challenge, his next move will be one of real interest.