Single take movies have been made before, but never quite like Victoria. For one thing, this hang-out-romance-turned-heist-flick was actually executed in a single shot. Well, technically director Sebastian Schipper and Co. executed three shots over the course of three long nights/early mornings in Berlin, but the third take was the charm and that’s the 138-minute movie screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Sure, Victoria is ultimately a movie hinged on a production gimmick, but one executed so well in an extraordinary dance between a talented cast and an invisible crew that it’s nearly impossible to walk out of the theater without feeling impressed.
The pixie-ish Laia Costa stars as the titular Victora, a Spanish student in Berlin. She dances the opening credits away in a nightclub before running into four charmingly drunken guys (yep, that’s a thing). With nothing else to do she wanders around with the boys (Frederick Lau, Burak Yigit, Franz Rogowitski, Max Mauff) for a while and notices that they have a mild attraction to petty crime, yet doesn’t seem to care. She even forms a bond with the most charismatic/sober member of the group, Sonne (Lau),and together they enjoy one of those longwinded flirtatious conversations about everything and nothing. Then the burgeoning couple’s bubble is burst when Boxer (Rogowitski) reveals he made a deal with a local gangster (Andre Hennicke) during a recent stint in prison and is being called in for a favor. He needs help and in an all-hands-on-deck situation, so even Victoria tags along. Unfortunately for everyone, that favor involves guns, a heist, a stolen getaway van, and heaping piles of trouble.
Based on a dozen-page outline expanded through improvisation, Victoria has a loose and rambling structure in its first half. Though at times tedium sets in, it’s ultimately quite watchable thanks primarily the undeniable chemistry and skill of Costa and Lau. They both disappear into their roles and their mutual attraction (along with their mutual transition into fear and panic) is constantly relatable and believable. The other characters bobble around the edge of the frame, but Schipper’s ever-roving camera keeps that duo at the center. It’s a necessary gambit to pull off Victoria’s second half, grounding in realism and forcing audience empathy onto two characters about to head off down a dark path. Yet as charming as this section is, the film likely would be a footnote had it just been a single take flirtation movie.
While Schipper’s camera effectively dances around the characters with a palpable sense of romantic naturalism, the film really takes off once the genre shifts. Suddenly the tension of the unbroken take becomes almost unbearable as the action mounts. The filmmakers cleverly mix on and off screen action during the big set pieces to minimize the challenge of the single take production stunt, but there’s no denying how impressive it was too pull of this cinematic feat. SWAT teams appear, cars speed through the streets, prosthetic blood is shed, and shootouts pile up. Schipper doesn’t really limit the ambitions of his genre effort to suit the unique shooting style. It’s a genuine thriller and an effective one. The fact that the team pulled this thing off is something of a cinematic miracle.
Victoria must be the first movie ever to credit the DP (Sturla Brandth Grovlen) first in the end credits and deservingly so. To not only keep all the action in frame, but do so artfully and suspensefully is quite a dance that likely won’t be matched any time soon. As strong as the performances are and as tightly wound as the genre-shifting narrative might feel, Victoria would likely be a slightly above average thriller were it not for the single take production. Viewers not inclined to notice such things will likely subliminally feel the tension of the technique, but let’s be honest: a foreign thriller like Victoria will likely only be watched by viewers who notice such things. The film pulls you in with technique and the gradual rise in narrative action mirrors the increasing challenge of the production. So in a weird way that behind the scenes knowledge adds to the suspense rather than pulling audiences out of the movie. By the end, there’s a sense of having lived through the ordeal along with the characters and well as the filmmakers. It’s an exhilarating and exhausting experience, well worth seeking out for any viewer charmed by the spectacle of a cinematic stunt.