Saturday, April 02, 2016

Victoria: a grand (larceny) night out in Berlin [QFT Fri 1-Thu 14 April]

Bring a picnic if you’re going to see Victoria. A large one. Nothing in noisy wrappers that will distract from the often breathy dialogue. Maybe a large can of Pringles and a sandwich. Or a pizza. And not too much liquid as you don’t want to be running to the loo during this two hour fourteen minute, twenty two location, single take film.

Victoria (played by Laia Costa) is young, Spanish and out late clubbing in Berlin. With not enough time to go home before her shift, she’s heading straight to work to kip for a couple of hours and then open up the café for the early morning trade. Some lads flirt with her as leaves the club and she lingers. The gang are trying to steal a car. But is Victoria bothered? Soon she’s helping them steal booze under the nose of a sleeping corner shop owner, jay walking, enjoying an illicit rooftop drink and taking Sonne (Frederick Lau) back to the café. Young, risk-taking and light fingered.

Wilhem and Medné’s organic café – it’s a real business – conveniently has an out of tune piano and the action rests there a while to fill in Victoria’s musical backstory. Where will the night’s madness end? Just over an hour into the film, the pace (thankfully) quickens and the previously absent jeopardy is introduced. Up to that point the most frequently repeated line of the film must be:
“I have to go. I have to open the café at seven.”

But now the gang return with a ‘job’ to do and carefree Victoria agrees to help with their heist. The focus of the rest of the film revolves around the consequence of this largely unseen incident, and frankly around the high velocity criminal journey of a non-German speaking Spanish girl spending the summer alone working in Berlin. Her motivation to jump from shoplifting to grand larceny all within the space of ninety minutes is never fully justified. Initially a panicker, she learns to keep her cool in the chaos that ensues.

As an audience we spend a lot of the film looking over Victoria’s shoulder with the pavement scenes bathed in the warm amber glow of the street lights until the sun eventually rises. The one shot magic builds up its confidence early on with a short bike ride, a mere children’s party trick when compared with a later bike stunt. It’s ten years since the two enormously long takes in Children of Men appeared on cinema screens.

The camera in Victoria is like her shadow and never strays to far from the titular character. Almost becoming another silent character, it nips into the ladies loos, wobbles up streets, climbs ladders, gets in and out of cars, is shot at and eventually stands still for the last minute of the film. With all the bobbing around I’d recommend sitting fairly far back in the cinema to allow your neck to rest. The released film was only the third and final take the crew shot, though the outline script was rehearsed in smaller chunks over ten days. [The film was shot on a Canon EOS C300 camera without a bulky Steadicam harness. Canon’s interview with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is a great read.]

The cast do well to keep the emotional interest in each other and allow their eyes to dart realistically as the scenes unfold. Victoria speaks English while the gang often revert to German which she doesn’t understand (though the audience can follow through subtitles). It requires a lot of concentration, particularly when some of the dialogue is whispered. With the real time nature of the story, the constant chattering of the improvised script all becomes a bit too much at points and it is a relief when the actors’ mics are faded down and Nils Frahm’s soothing soundtrack is allowed to take over for a few minutes.

Victoria is as long as three episodes of 24. There are fewer stunts but the intensity is there during parts of the film. The question for me is whether the twists and turns are believable when held up against what we learn about the character of Victoria. If they are, then beware minimum wage café workers in Berlin! However, I fear that the quality of the finished film suffers due to the real time storyline and becomes more about the herculean length of the shot rather than quality of the plot and acting.

Sturla Brandth Grøvlen certainly deserves his top billing as the first name that appears when the credits finally roll. To make your own mind up on whether the plot rivals the quality of the craft, you can see Victoria at the Queen’s Film Theatre between Thursday 1 and Friday 14 April. (Don’t forget your picnic.)

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