Imagine you’re alone at a club in the early hours of the morning. You’re having a good time. Now imagine the club that you’re alone in is in a city that you’re alone in; you’ve been there for three months but you don’t know anyone. Now imagine that as you’re leaving the club you run into a group of four shady-looking guys who try to befriend you despite the fact that you have to go to work in a café in a couple of hours and persuade you to hang out with them even though they’re clearly up to no good. What would you do? Would you run away? I would. Or would you go with them? I wouldn’t. But then I’m not Victoria.
Victoria. Twenty-something. Spanish. Living in Berlin. She’s the one all this is happening to. And she doesn’t run away. She, inexplicably, stays with the group, perhaps out of loneliness or curiosity or peer pressure or all three, and sees her night unravel and gruellingly develop into a rollercoaster of adrenaline and tension.
So goes the story of Victoria, the latest film by Sebastien Schipper. It unfolds exhilaratingly and intensely over two hours and twenty minutes, and what adds to the intensity is the fact that it’s all shot in one take. Everything. All of it is in real time. And that, for sure, is very, very impressive. It won the Silver Bear at Berlin last year for cinematography, and it’s a deserved win. Watching Victoria, we really are watching Victoria. For the whole film the camera follows her, and we watch.
Sadly, what it is that we’re watching feels very unsatisfying. Personally, most of the intensity that I felt came not from any build-up or tension in the plot but from a simple fear for Victoria’s safety. It wasn’t even really an intensity, more a prolonged sense of unease. I’m not sure if that’s what the filmmakers intended, but that’s what I felt.
From the very beginning, from the moment she met these total strangers, these four seedy at four in the morning, every ounce of me was screaming “GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE!” through gritted teeth, my whole body was clenched and urging her away – but no, she just stayed, she just went along with them, and even now I can’t figure out why.
The film doesn’t seem to offer any attempt at an explanation for her motives for staying. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, not everything has to be explained, but it seemed like we her motives were never in question in the first place and that we’re just meant to accept that she falls in with these four criminals and keep watching the film. There’s no pauses for breath in the whole two hours and twenty minutes. Well there is one about a third of the way through the film when the gang leaves and you think “finally she’s safe”, but no, they come back, and back through the meat grinder we go.
To make things worse, over the course of the night a romantic subplot develops between Victoria and the leader of the criminal group. Now, I’m not one for judging people’s choices in love, but I have no idea what she saw in him. He’s sleazy, he’s manipulative, and I guess his plainly fake charms worked on her. Maybe she was just lonely. Which is another reason I felt incredibly sorry for her and wanted her to get away from him and from them and from everything as soon as she possibly could – and there were plenty of opportunities. And yet every single time she accepts their offers and demands, she never once says “no” to what they ask her to do. There’s so many times she could have walked away.
But no, the film denies her an easy exit and pushes on, and tries to get us to side with the four clearly dangerous men so that by the time they win her over they win the audience over too. But it didn’t work. I just kept wishing her to get away from them, from start to finish. There’s even a big tragic thing that happens near the end of the film that simply did not feel tragic because I just didn’t identify with the characters on screen. I won’t say what that tragic thing is, and I won’t say what happens afterwards, but I will say that the ending just made me keep questioning everything.
I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this is a heist film. There’s a heist that takes place at one point during the night. This isn’t a spoiler really, but she helps them by driving when their driver passes out drunk. I liked the fact that it wasn’t ever signposted, that it sort of just creeps up on you. But still. What is she doing? Why does she help them? Go home already!
Victoria is an astounding piece of filmmaking, it really is. The sheer audacity of the production should be enough to convince you to go and see it, and I’m definitely glad that I did. The whole film builds up, bad decision after bad decision, and structurally it works really well. It’s just unfortunate that the film completely denies us any real insight into the lead character’s mentality. And when you’re making a film in real time for two hours and twenty minutes in one take never leaving that character’s side, then that’s a pretty major obstacle.
Victoria is out now exclusive to Cinema Nova.
Review written by Ben Volchok