Fantastic Fest Review: VICTORIA Redefines The Single-Shot Movie

No gimmicks in Sebastian Schipper’s one-take wonder.

The single take film has kind of been rendered pointless by technology. It’s so easy to stitch shots together now that what was once an incredible feat of endurance has become more about design. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se; it just takes some of the jaw-dropping “wow” factor away. So it’s with much trepidation that gimmick-weary audiences entered Sebastian Schipper’s one-take wonder (and multiple Lola winner) Victoria. Turns out it was unfounded.

Unlike many other “single-take” films, there are no secret edits here; no sneaky pans across walls or up to the sky. This ain’t no Silent House or Birdman (or even Rope!) - it’s the real deal, a two and a half hour improvised play enacted by a five-person ensemble across a small swathe of Berlin. Shot in three takes on consecutive nights, with the third take functioning as the movie, Victoria is an astonishing work of cinema and a film of huge emotional power.

Taking place in real time, Victoria picks up the story of its title character (Spanish actor Laia Costa) just as she’s finishing a night of partying to go start her shift in a cafe. Near the start of the film, she encounters a group of youths led by Sonne (Frederick Lau) - a bunch of rowdy blokes with a penchant for stealing beer and hanging out on rooftops. Victoria’s night takes a turn for the unusual as she’s roped into a dangerous adventure with her new friends in order to satisfy a mob debt owed by one of their number.

With nearly every frame focusing on Costa, and the cast only really encompassing five actors in total, the performances in Victoria had to be exceptional for the film to work. Thanks to superb improvisational work from the cast - and Costa and Lau in particular - the performances are naturalistic and honest beyond most films you’ll see. The cast has an easygoing camaraderie, and we’re allowed a lot of time to hang out with them that pays off hugely in the emotionally-charged, action-packed third act.

Victoria is reminiscent of films like La Haine and Lilya 4-Ever, not so much in terms of its subject material (which isn’t nearly as bleak), but in terms of its free-wheeling energy. The emotion is high in every scene, whether carefree drunkenness, blossoming romance, or life-and-death tension. The lengthy running time makes the emotional rollercoaster gruelling at times, but it’s worthwhile, generating a story that feels emotionally true, if not entirely plausible. It helps that the film is mostly in English spoken as a second language, capturing the weird encounters between Europeans of differing origins that often occur. Having to stumble through a language the actors (and characters) don't speak fluently adds a charming sense of realism. All the while, the camera dances about with the actors as they walk, run, climb, cycle, and drive around Berlin - a feat that must have been absolutely exhausting for the camera operator(s).

And exhaustion sums up the reason for Schipper’s methodology. Most single-take films draw attention to themselves, either with slick Steadicam cinematography or amazing feats of effects or engineering that feel more like technical exercises than drama. Victoria is much simpler in its production logic: it has to be a single take in order to push the actors to the right places. By the end of the film, the two leads in particular reach heartbreaking emotional extremes, and I firmly believe the remarkable performances came at least partly due to the single-take process. That the handheld camerawork often ceases to “feel” like a single-take movie is testament to how well the actors draw the audience in.

Victoria breaks audience expectations early on, when the four strapping youths who accost the title character in the street at 4am turn out to be friendly and non-threatening. They’re criminals, of course, but you get the impression they wouldn’t ever want to hurt anyone - they’re three-dimensional people who occasionally steal shit. It’s with the same expectation-defying joy that the film plays out from there. Victoria is a special movie, crafted with incredible filmmaking that’s so subtle it doesn’t even really hit home until the credits roll. Don’t miss it if you have a heart.