There is no digital trickery or sleight of hand in Sebastian Schipper’s one-take wonder Victoria (2015). Ostensibly a contemporary Bonnie and Clyde with a slathering of immediacy layered generously on top, Schipper’s latest is an adroitly choreographed feat of cinematic ingenuity, capturing a single night in Berlin in real-time. The film opens with a full-on assault on the senses. Pounding dance music beats incessantly on the frail membrane of the auditorium speakers while the camera glares into a strobe light. It’s a disorientating, yet strangely immersive device, and as the camera drifts away to Victoria (Laia Costa) dancing by herself Schipper has already succeeded in making us feel part of her world.
Victoria is a young Spanish girl on her own in Berlin. On leaving the club she meets four guys who have just been refused entry. One of them, Sonne (Frederick Lau), takes a shine to her and the pair begin to flirt. Victoria doesn’t speak German and Sonne can’t speak Spanish so they converse relatively successfully in broken English. Victoria plans to head home but for Sonne the night is still young and he convinces her to stay out with his pals. What begins as a cordial forging of friendships turns sour when one of the group receives a phone call demanding he pay off an old debt. Victoria, failing to comprehend the gravity of what’s going on, agrees to tag along. As night turns into day this chance encounter escalates into an unimaginable evening of chaos, with Schipper there to capture every last moment.
Filmed across 22 different locations and involving 150 extras, Victoria is a tremendous technical achievement and one that’s hard to believe once you see just how seamlessly the narrative unfurls. Moments of suspense are impeccably intertwined with humour, romance and observations of life in what surmounts to an organically evolved thriller that never feels improvised or overly rehearsed. Alongside the film’s high-concept approach Berlin shines proudly as a character in itself. Constantly permeating the frame, the city’s tenement blocks watch idly whilst the glow of flickering street lamps underscore the nervous energy of this restless city. However, the linchpin that holds the film together is the remarkable performances of Costa and Lau. Costa boasts a look that somehow connotes her character’s delight, excitement, fear and trepidation all at the same time, whilst Lau, as the only one of the boys who successfully circumvents the boorish bravado of the ‘laddish’ mentality of their group displays a simpering curiosity and growing infatuation towards Victoria that adds gravitas to an airy screenplay.
One scene in particular, involving a neglected piano in a café, is perfectly calibrated to the film’s exploration of longing and belonging. Blending the pair’s talents magnificently, this is the indispensable catalyst that makes their union seem plausible in an increasingly inconceivable scenario. Schipper’s script doesn’t quite complement his technical prowess and once you peer behind the smoke and mirrors of the film’s one-take gimmick the criminal-underworld lurking behind it feels trite and contrived. Victoria’s complicity is difficult to comprehend, whilst the notion that acts of criminality like these are rarely planned, but rather dictated by larger, mitigating circumstance doesn’t coalesce with the preposterous development of the narrative. Yet none of this can take away from its pure entertainment factor. An experience akin to a burst of pure adrenaline intravenously introduced to your bloodstream, Victoria remains one helluva ride.
The 65th Berlin Film Festival takes place from 5-15 February 2015. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble