Victoria (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): A crime thriller presented via a single continuous take

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Although I do not think German film “Victoria” intends to be a cautionary moral tale, it can be said that there is a familiar moral to be learned from its heroine’s unfortunate plight during a few hours: Be discreet about whom you befriend. Even though there are already signs of a trouble to come, she keeps hanging around a stranger and his unreliable friends while making a few unwise choices, and, of course, she eventually finds herself stuck in a dire situation she never imagined in the beginning.

The opening minutes of the movie shows its young heroine enjoying herself at a nightclub somewhere in Berlin during late dawn. Victoria (Laia Costa) is a Spanish girl who recently came into Germany after giving up her music career in Spain as mentioned later, and she currently works at a nearby cafe without any particular plan about her uncertain future. Although she still needs to learn German more, she can at least communicate with others in English instead as shown from her brief conversation with a bartender working at the nightclub, so most of dialogues in the movie are spoken in English instead of German as it revolves around her viewpoint (and that was the main reason why it was not eligible to be Germany’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in last year).

When Victoria is about to leave the nightclub and have a few hours of nap at the cafe before it opens at AM 7:00, she happens to encounter Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his three friends, who are prevented from entering the place for an unspecified reason. Not long after leaving the nightclub, she meets them again, and she soon comes to enjoy their company although it is quite apparent from their impromptu attempt to steal a car that these lads are too reckless and irresponsible to hang around with.

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Victoria becomes attracted to Sonne particularly, and he persuades her to have a little extra fun with him and his friends before having her nap. They try thievery at a convenient store just because, well, they can. They also sneak inside an apartment building and then go up to its rooftop, where they come to have their own quiet but jolly moment together with stolen goods and marijuana. Victoria gets to know a bit about Sonne and his friends including Boxer (Franz Rogowski), who was recently released from prison but mostly looks like a nice guy as far as she can see.

The mutual feeling between Victoria and Sonne becomes more evident when Sonne later decides to spend a more intimate time alone with her before leaving along with his friends for some urgent business. He goes to her cafe along with her, and they sense more of the attraction felt between them as playfully interacting with each other in the cafe, and it looks like this short moment of theirs can lead to them a more serious stage.

Anyway, Sonne suddenly comes back not long after leaving the cafe, and Victoria gets involved with him much more than expected. Sonne and his friends are supposed to meet someone associated with Boxer, but one of them is too drunk for that important meeting, and somebody must fill the spot as soon as possible. While not fully grasping what is really going on, Victoria decides to do the job mainly because Sonne and his friends are clearly in the urgent need of help. It initially looks like a simple matter of driving them to some place, but then she belatedly realizes she made a big mistake when she comes to the meeting along with others.

So far, “Victoria” surely sounds like a conventional crime thriller, but the director/co-writer Sebastian Schipper and his cast and crew try here something quite challenging in numerous technical aspects. They shot the movie in one single continuous take around several different locations in the Kreuzberg and Mitte neighborhoods of Berlin, and what is presented in the movie is the third take which was in fact their last chance after two previous unsatisfying attempts.

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Reminiscent of a few other successful cases including Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” (2002), the overall result is technically commendable to say the least. The cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s digital camera fluidly moves around or along with the performers on the screen without drawing attention to itself at all, and the dramatic tension of the movie is steadily accumulated as Victoria and the other main characters are gradually pushed into more danger and desperation along the plot. Grøvlen deservedly received the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for Cinematography at the Berlin International Film Festival early in last year, and the movie also won several prizes including the Best Feature Film Award at the 2015 German Film Awards.

Under Schipper’s skillful direction, his cast members look spontaneous enough on the screen while they certainly prepared themselves a lot in advance before their demanding shooting. As the emotional anchor of the story, Laia Coast is believable in every step of her character’s dramatic physical/emotional journey along the plot, and she and her co-star Frederick Lau have nice chemistry between their performances.

While not only admirable but also successful overall in its daring filmmaking experiment, the movie sometimes gets itself confined by its technical and narrative limits. Besides several dragging parts which could be easily cut or trimmed if it were a more conventional work, the movie is sometimes hampered by thin characterization and glaring plot contrivances, and I must point out that Sonne’s friends frequently look more like tools existing solely for causing more troubles rather than believable characters we can care about besides Sonne and Victoria.

Being a bit too long in its running time (138 minutes), “Victoria” begins to lose its grip around its last 30 minutes, but I enjoyed it anyway while admiring what was achieved on the screen. They willingly went for sheer verisimilitude via an unconventional cinematic approach, and they did succeed as providing us an interesting movie experience to remember and talk about. To me, that is a lot more engaging than usual blockbuster action products – and you may agree to that after watching it.

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