“One City. One Night. One Take”, boast the promos for Sebastian Schipper’s blistering crime flick/romance, “Victoria”. There’s no getting around what the film promises to be, a two-hour plus story all done in one camera shot, and honestly so, not a series of clever edits like “Birdman”. While the “gimmick” of the single-take sequence has grown tiresome and a crutch too many filmmakers lean on as proof of their supposed skill, Schipper uses it to brazen, ballsy effect, crafting a cinematic experience that is unlike any other you’ll experience this year.
“Victoria” is one of those films it’s best to go in to completely cold, because where it begins is a total 180 from where it ends up. Shot across 22 locations with a razor thin screenplay to encourage improvisation, the film takes place in the late night party hearty hours of Berlin, where we meet Victoria (Laia Costa) as she dances the evening away. A Spanish transplant looking to make new friends, she encounters four guys who instantly look like they could be trouble. We can’t help but fear the worst. The street toughs are Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuß (Max Mauff), and the ease with which Victoria latches on to them shows her disturbing desperation. Even as they start to get a little more belligerent, especially the rowdy Boxer, Victoria doesn’t want to leave their orbit. She’s only got a couple of hours before she has to open up the cafe for work, but leaving her newfound friends is simply something she doesn’t want to do.
Part of the reason she won’t leave is the casual, completely charming flirtation she shares with Sonne, and their growing attraction encapsulates the film’s first hour. As dizzying as DP Sturla Brandth Grovlen’s camera was in the opening party scene, it takes a less intrusive position as these two organically fall in love over the evening’s course. Their courtship takes some small, awkward diversions, but builds naturally. There’s the reticence about that first romantic contact, the offering up of personal, somewhat embarrassing information. We’re so invested in them that if this is all the film were it would still be a richly observed romantic drama.
But it’s just a facade, a clever ruse to lower our guards. A phone call to Boxer sends the film into an unexpected overdrive as a heist plot emerges that will leave you breathless. The original single-shot conceit takes on a greater urgency as events spiral out of control. Driven by chaotic plotting rather than understated characterization, the film takes on a completely different kind of energy. The transition from astute “Before Sunrise”-style love story to kinetic thriller in the vein of “Run Lola Run” is seamless. Some of the decisions the characters make, and the bonkers situations they get thrown into, stretch the limits of plausibility. However it’s the continuous camerawork and the grip it has on you that never allows a moment to consider flaws in logic. There’s also no denying the exhilaration in the film’s change in genre, with the ensuing fallout producing some wildly tense and gorgeously shot action sequences. A shootout later on is as beautifully rendered as an earlier, quieter scene in which Victoria plays the piano for an enraptured Sonne.
Looking back on “Victoria” it’s amazing to think it was all done in a single take in only a few run-throughs. The level of commitment from Laia Costa to so completely embody the role of Victoria is astonishing because the film hangs on her ability to do so. While somewhat overlong and a bit slow in the early going, “Victoria” literally has something for everybody. It works as a love story, a stirring drama, and an exciting crime thriller. Once it’s over you’ll be dying to watch it one more time to see how such an achievement could be accomplished.