Sold on the gimmick of single-take visual chutzpah – though it’s a trick more tested than the hype tells you that it is – Sebastian Shipper’s relentless Victoria comes short on thrills. The rush of the real-time approach is more exhaustive than exhilarating, but provides quieter moments with an edge of organic soulfulness. The result is that the plot services the approach, when it should be the other way around.
Alone in Berlin, Victoria lives humbly working in a cafe while at university. She meets a rowdy group of partying guys exiting the club, drawn to the charming and flirtatious Sonne. The meeting is touched with the spark of connection, not just romantically with Sonne, but the entire crew of boisterous and welcoming bros. Her relief to finally connect with others – she’s from Spain and barely speaks German – draws her in further until she’s willingly over her head with a bank heist her new friends commit.
Plausibility irrevocably rocks the ship here: given plenty of opportunity and reason to quit while she’s ahead, Victoria behaves as no rational human would given the circumstances and we’re given no further insight as to what could compel her to suddenly welcome criminal behavior. Loneliness and Sonne’s sex appeal simply don’t cut it, especially as she never indicates those reasons as her motive to jump into organized crime. It becomes a little absurd.
The creative urge to complete the film in one continuous take is obviously enticing, with the potential to ratchet up the tension and urgency of the dangerous proceedings. However, it undercuts tension in crucial scenes, particularly for the grandly poor decisions made at every turn. Shipper’s camera never gives us the context with which to interpret the action and the transition between set-ups becomes a bit flabby. For something that constantly tries to inject energy and excitement, the film drags. Not to downplay the achievement here, because the technical demands – weaving the camera in and out of vehicles, capturing expansive public space, and utilizing natural light – are substantially felt. A few shaky moments where you can guess the camera is traded between camera operators give the sometimes removed gaze a bold jolt of immediacy.
While the stunt hinders the story, it gives the actors free reign to control audience participation. As Victoria, Laia Costa is unflinching; the character may behave preposterously, but Costa’s unflappable readiness for the perils she faces is something to behold. She has charged kind of chemistry with Frederick Lau’s dreamy Sonne that Hollywood would kill for between any romantic leads. Early scenes of Lau and Costa connecting are where the single take method excite the most as we see these two young people connect and flirt, watching them fall for eachother in real time.
The other marvel in the process is how we see the exhaustion and desperation develop in the actors as the film meets its predictably punishing conclusion. Costa and Lau are lost in the vacuum of adrenaline, frantic messes far removed from the characters we met. The marathon sprint clearly serviced their laudable performances, but you’re still left wishing the film itself served the story.