Victoria: Burn with Me, by David Bax
Okay, listen. Like any self-respecting contrarian, I’m always a bit wary of a film that has a gimmick at the forefront of its buzz. Sebastien Schipper’s Victoria is one such movie, being a two and a half hour thriller brought off entirely in a lone take. To be fair and to give credit where credit is due, this isn’t a Birdman deal where editing gives the impression of a single shot. This is a true one-take movie. In fact, more apt a comparison than Birdman would be Gravity in the sense that what’s on display is a tour de force story of a woman trying to survive a dire situation. And, also like Gravity, it’s a non-stop, jittery thrill.
Unlike Gravity, however, in which Sandra Bullock’s character is on a noble scientific mission before events become complicated, Laia Costa’s Victoria makes a conscious decision to be in peril. A Spaniard living in Berlin, Victoria is headed home from a club late one night (a little after 4:00 am) when she meets a charming scoundrel named Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his friends, out celebrating the birthday of one of their rank, a plastered young man called Fuss (Max Mauff). It turns out that Fuss and Sonne’s friend, Boxer (Franz Rogowski), owes a favor to some local gangsters. When that favor is called in and Fuss is too drunk to participate, Victoria volunteers to help.
In many ways, Victoria has the feel of an old-school horror film. As a member of the audience, you may find yourself wanting to shout at the screen, encouraging Victoria not to follow these ruffians and to just get home to safety. But even while you yearn for her to listen to reason, Schipper builds the romance between Victoria and Sonne in such a way that you are as powerless to resist its pull as they are.
Schipper’s most beautiful trick, employed with judicious restraint, is to drop the diegetic sound out of the mix and replace it with a plaintive score. The single take conceit is immersive and relentless and, when things get hairy, it can drastically quicken the pulse. So these sections with nothing on the soundtrack but music are a welcome respite and the only real chances an audience will have to take a step back and reflect on the characters.
At the risk of belaboring the comparison, Victoria ultimately outshines Gravity. Where Alfonso Cuarón’s film is an extraordinary achievement of technique and pacing, it remains an ephemeral experience due to the thinness of the characters. Schipper, however, is as or more concerned with the internal lives of Victoria and Sonne as he is with the external stimulations of plot. The never-blinking camera (courtesy of cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) doesn’t only generate suspense. It also captures the untethered feeling of being young, carefree and open to the world. Costa and Lau’s exquisite performances are as psychological nuanced as they are viscerally reactive. Comparisons to similarly executed films are inevitable but in its delicate balance of tenderness and tension, Victoria has few equals.