With advanced filmmaking technology becoming more readily available to independent filmmakers, films outside the studio system are finding new and bold ways to tell stories. Over the last few years, one of those techniques has been the long shot, complex and unbroken sequences executed without the assistance of obvious editing. We’ve had breathtaking sequences in films like ‘Children of Men’ and television shows like ‘True Detective’, and last year’s Oscar-winning ‘Birdman’ created the illusion of being a single shot through some clever editing. However, German director Sebastian Schipper may have blown all previous attempts out of the water with ‘Victoria’, a sprawling thriller told in one unbroken 134 minute shot. As far as technical achievements go, this has to be one of the most impressive yet. But does technical genius translate into a great film?
On a night out alone in Berlin, young Spanish waitress Victoria (Laia Costa) falls in with a random group of boisterous guys, who take her under their wing and show her the town. She starts to become close with one of them, charming and attentive Sonne (Frederick Lau), and everything seems geared towards the two of them making a romantic connection, until the evening suddenly spirals completely out of control, and Victoria finds herself in a horrifying situation where her life and the gang’s lives lie in her hands.
There’s absolutely no denying what a remarkable filmmaking achievement ‘Victoria’ is. It’s almost impossible to imagine how much work and effort must have gone in to executing such a complex film without the advantage of editing, and with the time limit of the sunrise itself working against them. Time itself becomes a palpable part of the storytelling, allowing the character relationships to develop in real time and with a tremendous sense of immediacy. I can’t think of any other example of a long shot that so carefully utilises time and environment as well as this film does, and it’s a credit to Schipper that it rarely feels like a gimmick. It also benefits the performances immensely. Mostly improvised, the dialogue has that wonderful combination of natural and awkward, the young cast given the time and space to develop their characters and relationships without any intrusion. Costa and Lau in particular are magical, especially in their moments together. Their most private moment, a third of the way into the film, is easily one of the romantic moments I’ve seen in a film in a long time, delicate and emotional and beautifully real. For the story he is telling, this feels like the perfect manner in which to tell it, and when those brief moments hit you (especially in the explosive third act) that the camera has never once cut away, you find yourself marvelling at the achievement of the whole thing.
However, technical skill doesn’t always make a perfect film, and while the set-up of ‘Victoria’ is instantly arresting, the spiral into chaos threatens to displace the film. The succession of terrible turns-of-fate begin with explosive force and effect, but after nearly an hour they begin to lose their power, and the climax of the film muddies what the point of the film might have been. There’s only so much an audience can take, and while the initial narrative turn is executed so perfectly, the kind of palpable dread that glues you to the screen, its tremendous effectiveness means the rest of the film feels exhausting and overblown, without narrative or emotional impact. As the final act went on, I found my interest and sympathy waning, not because of the actions of the characters but from the sheer amount of stuff happening that became difficult to easily digest. Perhaps the intention of ‘Victoria’ is to be an experience, and there’s no denying that it fulfils this requirement beautifully, but there is a point where it feels like twists and turns are happening simply because they can, not because they should. The last hour is almost a wall-to-wall action thriller, and while it's certainly better material than any action thrillers we’ve seen in a long time, those moments pale in comparison to some of the more poignant or intimate moments earlier in the film. It also threatens to make the long shot technique feel like the stunt it so carefully avoids being, and I found myself thinking more about "How did they do that?" than "How are these characters I care about going to get out of this?" - a question that I had never once considered in the first two thirds. Unfortunately, as it races towards its climax, the technical overtakes the narrative, and that is rarely a good thing.
While the set-up of ‘Victoria’ is instantly arresting, the spiral into chaos threatens to displace the film.
Perhaps this is the point of ‘Victoria’, and Schipper is simply creating a grand visual and aural experience for an audience with a thrilling (if occasionally far-fetched) narrative with some genuinely electrifying characters, but something about ‘Victoria’ left me wanting. By naming it after our protagonist, it suggests that her journey is the one we should be following, but apart from putting her through absolute hell, it’s not clear what that journey is supposed to mean. That said, ‘Victoria’ is a bold and immense achievement in filmmaking, easily the most impressive use of the long shot I’ve seen yet, and deserves mountains of praise for pulling off something so ambitious without compromising. It also features truly great performances from its leads, who both light up the screen and sparkle with chemistry. Even if the final result never quite amounts to as much as it perhaps could have, it deserves immediate attention just for the fact that it exists at all.