Part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Gimmicks have long been used to get butts in theatre seats. From the blatantly crass attempts of William Castle, who deployed live effects in the theatres during his B-movie screenings, to the formal constraints of Alfred Hitchcock, who dared himself to film entirely in a boat or an apartment, or in reel-length unbroken takes. Gimmicks are exciting, they pique an audience’s curiosity. But transcending them and delivering a worthwhile work of art at the end is one of the most difficult tasks a filmmaker has. Gimmicks are both blessing and curse.
The aforementioned unbroken take has been tried many times before, including a faux example in last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman. Now comes the German film Victoria, which manages an honest-to-goodness, no-strings-attached single take as the titular woman, a Spanish transplant, joins a group of guys on a drunken night in Berlin. What begins with the bravado of belligerent boys and the tentative mating dance of the deeply intoxicated, eventually turns sour as Victoria gets enlisted in a foolish and irrevocable act.
Facing facts, Victoria is an idiot and it becomes remarkably difficult to elicit any sympathy for her, despite the film’s attempt at shading in her backstory to show she has little to lose. The first third, following Victoria as she gets wrangled into tagging along with a group of louts, plays like an unintentional horror film. It’s clear these men are nothing but predators. We watch and wait for Victoria to wise up (or sober up) and take her leave but time and again she does not. She sees the fork in the road and decides to stab herself with the knife instead.
Laia Costa’s performance as Victoria does go a decent way in keeping us interested. She can sell carefree when it’s not completely moronic and a few of her quiet moments are sublime. There’s a scene when she bares herself emotionally for the first time that is stunning.
While certainly a commendable technical achievement, the decision to film in one unbroken shot ultimately betrays the movie. Despite crafting a narrative that tries to maintain thrilling momentum, having events unfold in real time doesn’t necessarily mean that it should. The film clocks in at a robust 138 minutes and frankly, it feels even longer. In addition, refusing an editor deprives the director Sebastian Schipper of controlling the movie’s tone. Cuts can enhance and reinforce motive and emotion. Victoria’s unavoidable dead spots sabotage sustainable rhythm.
Particularly in the second half, a disconnect builds between the film’s intentions and the reactions it generates. As dawn breaks over Berlin, Victoria delves deeper into its darkness. And yet the more desperate events become, the sillier the whole enterprise seems. By the time it reaches a denouement of despair, we’re too exhausted to care.