The fact that the breathtaking technical accomplishment of Victoria might easily go unnoticed by the average cinemagoer is a huge credit to director Sebastian Schipper, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen and the cast of performers that execute this one-shot thriller with faultless precision. Yep, over two hours of action, all in one take; no cuts. This isn’t the first time a filmmaker has adopted a one-take approach – and there is an element of gimmickry in such a decision – but the sheer magnitude of what Schipper has accomplished with Victoria is something to behold. Refusing to limit the scope of the action, the characters traverse Berlin by night as the story morphs effortlessly from playful romance to crackling crime caper, all in real time. Whilst the technical prowess on display is quite remarkable, the lead performance from Laia Costa as the titular Victoria is equally impressive. In a mesmerising turn devoid of vanity and bristling with emotional intensity, the 30-year-old Spanish actress (playing much younger here) is powerfully effective as a young woman who finds herself caught up in a most unexpected turn of events.
The film opens on a smoke-filled strobe-lit night club, the camera weaving amongst the crowd until it fixes on Victoria dancing happily by herself, oblivious to those around her. Having found her, the camera never lets her go and, for the next 135 minutes, we follow her on an adventure that pushes her to the brink, both physically and emotionally. As she leaves the club, Victoria encounters a group of four young men and strikes up a flirtatious rapport with Sonne (Frederik Lau). Like so many young guys today, Sonne, Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuss (Max Mauff) roam the streets listlessly, drinking and engaging in (mostly) harmless moments of mischief. Bored and with little money, they are all desperate to impress Victoria, however, it is Somme to whom she is drawn and we spend the first half of the film watching this romance unfold. The pacing here will no doubt leave some people frustrated as Victoria and Sonne (and the others) spend a lot of time walking and talking (and riding). The conversations between Sonne and Victoria are awkward, yet heartfelt and genuine, and the scene inside a closed cafe is particularly well-handled by the two performers.
When Boxer, who, having spent time in prison, is summoned by the criminal figure who afforded him protection in jail, Victoria finds herself recruited to join the boys in an undertaking that is fraught with risk. The mood changes from this point as the action ramps up and the tension builds. Despite their bravado and bluster, these boys are not hardened criminals and there are moments of humour as they bumble their way through a bank heist and their subsequent efforts at escape. Throughout it all, Costa embodies the emotional fluctuations without the benefit of an editing safety net. The ‘we’ll fix it in post’ adage simply doesn’t apply here and Costa rises to the challenge, delivering a powerful performance that spans the full gamut of emotional responses to the various situations in which her character finds herself. As is to be expected, the camera movement becomes more frantic in keeping with the increase in pace and emotional intensity as the group becomes desperate in their efforts to evade the police.
What starts as something akin to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise morphs into something altogether different in tone and perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Victoria is the fact that you become so captivated in the story that you stop fixating on the sheer bodaciousness of Schipper’s approach. You stop looking for hidden edits and embrace the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Shot between 4:00am and 7.00am in the Kreuzberg and Mitte neighbourhoods of Berlin, it took Schipper just three attempts to complete filming and the improvisational nature of much of the dialogue creates an intimacy between the characters that evokes a sense of realism. Ruled ineligible as Germany’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards due to the fact that most of the dialogue is in English, Valerie is a masterful melding of directorial audacity, sublime camerawork and a leading lady who transfixes in her mastery of her character’s emotional and psychological trajectory.