Victoria: The Single-Shot Sleeper

victoriaVictoria is acclaimed for its single camera shot, which is just, but also somewhat unfortunate as it runs the danger of sidelining the film’s deeper strengths. Whenever I hear a film touted for being shot in a particular way, I’m on gimmick-alert. A correspondent recently said to me, “the one-take phenomenon is getting old, striking me as the aesthetic equivalent of ‘my dick is bigger than yours'”, which isn’t unfair. Hitchcock did long takes in Rope to great effect, and True Detective’s wide tracking shot in episode 4 is an instant classic. But films like Russian Ark and Birdman could have done just as well without relying on their superficial “long-take” aesthetic.

The case of Victoria is like Rope and True Detective, using its uninterrupted focus in the right ways to forge an incredibly immersive viewing experience. In the first hour, a Spanish woman bonds with a group of troublesome but affectionate German guys on the streets of Berlin. They’re hoodlums, but not very bad ones, their crimes usually restricted to shoplifting beer and trespassing onto apartment roofs where they have quiet night parties. Victoria finds them endearing, as did I; frankly I could have watched their casual conversation for the film’s duration. She and Sonne (the group’s sort-of leader) in particular feel a growing attraction, and within an hour we are so invested in these two that if the film stopped here it would be a perfect romantic short.

victoria3Instead it takes a sudden turn. One of the guys passes out drunk and Victoria gets recruited to fill his role in a bank heist. No one really wants to do the robbery; the guys are blackmailed into it by a gang leader who had protected one of them in prison. Victoria is a good sport through all of this, putting up with misogynistic indignities from the gang leader who also threatens to withhold her as a hostage when the guys show signs of cold feet. As the driver, she avoids the dirty business of entering the bank and pointing guns, but the getaway is a ripper. The single camera shot achieves a breakneck momentum as Victoria turns frantically into side-streets and drives too fast instead of blending into the traffic’s speed.

Because Victoria and these guys are basically good people, we alternate between feeling helpless and exhilarated as they sink into quicksand and pull themselves out with surprising reversals. My favorite scene is the celebration after the heist.victoria4 They go to a dance club, and the thundering music and dialogue fade as a soft piano score plays over their manic frivolity. It makes Victoria seem trapped in a naively dangerous bliss, but it’s a strangely precious moment — the last ray of light before the cops descend.

That final foot chase guarantees an unhappy ending, but it’s still impossible to predict. The twists and turns are relentless. Shots are fired, people die, and even a baby is compromised. This is all to say that Victoria’s seamless camerawork never fails on its promise. I was so impressed I watched it again the next day. And I have updated my Best Films of 2015 list, putting this gem all the way up at #3.

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