Published Sep 12, 2015German actor/director Sebastian Schipper's bank heist thriller, Victoria, is the sort of film that people remember. It's an immersive work of stunning collaboration between cast, crew, director, cinematographer and extras that impresses not only because of how it plays as a functioning narrative, but also because of the amount of planning, choreography and consideration that must have gone into creating such a singular work.
Victoria was filmed in a single continuous shot. This tactic — with a few hidden cuts — was used by Hitchcock with Rope, Alexandr Sokurov with Russian Ark and, most recently, by Gustavo Hernández with Silent House (as well as by the filmmakers that shot the American remake), to mixed results. Where those films exploited theatrical tactics and translated them to film, mostly utilizing a single setting, Victoria is very much a cinematic movie. It's shot in multiple locales with over 150 extras, moving from the streets to vehicles to apartment buildings to stores to rooftops without any overt indicators of manufactured environment. There are even shootouts, stunts and multi-plane camera shots, suggesting that the entire neighbourhood was choreographed in unison to the second.
Of course, at the core of this carefully filmed multidimensional project is the basic story of a girl going through a damaging existential crisis. Our protagonist, Victoria (Laia Costa), is presented as an empty canvas. While out at a club, she meets Sonne (Frederick Lau), a moderately thuggish but ruggedly handsome charmer with a gang of friends. Sonne convinces an intoxicated Victoria to join him and his friends for some drinks, which initially seems foreboding — a young, drunk Spanish immigrant is wandering off with a group of guys — until the situation proves to be exactly what was suggested: a group of people drinking and shooting the shit.
Through the conversations, which were largely improvised by the actors and resultantly have a naturally mundane but natural sensibility and progression, we learn that Victoria works in a coffee shop and that Boxer (Franz Rogowski) was imprisoned at one time. We also get a sense that Victoria is a tad self-destructive; in addition to running off to a remote locale with four strange men, she actively takes every opportunity she can to put herself at risk, pretending to hang over the edge of a tall building and gleefully standing on the rear wheel of a bicycle as Sonne rides through the streets.
How she gets wound up in a criminal act these four strangers have committed to is one of the more contrived aspects of the film, but since Costa and Lau are both so committed to their characters, it doesn't detract from the overall trajectory and sheer magnetism of the film. And since Schipper carefully plotted the events to consider a comprehensive character breakdown and development, Victoria's actions don't seem strained. In fact, the way that she's shaped by Costa and slowly exposed aids in developing audience investment.
Once Victoria reaches the final hour-long climactic stretch — the final hour of the film is an ever-surmounting bubble of tension that feels perpetually ready to explode — it's consistently astonishing. But before it gets there, while the main characters are all getting to know each other, it does meander a bit and prove a tad repetitive at times.
Fortunately, Schipper makes effective use of soundtrack and mood to step back from the action on occasion to create a somewhat melancholic atmosphere with music. In addition to adding a sense of emotional complexity to the overall piece, it also helps coast through the occasional bland scenery (with presumably clumsy dialogue).
Despite these minor shortcomings and the couple of times where the camera briefly goes out of focus or the cinematographer visibly falls too far behind the actors and has to catch up, this solid work is nearly flawless in execution. What's particularly impressive is that when the action is in full-tilt and dozens of extras are engaged in movement, there's never a hint of staging or awkwardness. And since we're claustrophobically aligned with our protagonist for over two hours, it's nearly impossible not to get invested and feel what she's feeling, which is really what makes Victoria such a uniquely visceral cinematic experience.