‘Victoria’ Casts a Certain Spell

Sebastian Schipper's one take film is an anti-heroic story that challenges us to empathize.

A pretty young Spanish woman, the title character of Victoria, is ecstatically dancing the night away at a Berlin club, alone but caught up in the communal surge. She has reached that stage at which the electronic throb of the DJ’s music has essentially become the rhythm of her consciousness. Victoria is now operating at a low, measured simmer, her senses slow and languorous, her movements careless. The evening’s menu of alcohol, and possibly pills, have done their work, and she finds herself at a plateau. Time to get out and make her way home for a quick nap before reporting to her job at a cafe, preparing for the workday morning rush.

We don’t pay much attention to it in the early scenes, but director Sebastian Schipper’s remarkable echt-urban character study/thriller comes to us in one long, uninterrupted take — 138 minutes without a cut, shot on location with a handheld camera. This gimmick has been tried before — notable examples are Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark — but Schipper’s approach is not nearly so studious. Helter-skelter is more like it, at least on the surface.

Victoria (Barcelona native Laia Costa) is the portrait of loosey-goosey, and the four youngish guys she runs into on her way out of the club are the very definition of ambulance fodder. After Sonne, Boxer, Blinker, and Fuss (what happened to Donner and Blitzen?) are ejected by the bouncers, they go back to drunkenly lurching down the sidewalk, trying car door handles. Victoria is attracted to the most conventionally good-looking of the guys, Sonne (Frederick Lau), and accepts his offer to go for a ride with him and his car-boosting buddies. We instinctively recoil in our seats at this — that’s how women get raped. But the guys already have another job to do in the early morning hours, and Victoria, wiped out as she is, seems the best choice for getaway driver. And so our plucky-but-dumb barista joins up with the Gang That Couldn’t Think Straight, and they get into some serious trouble, in real time with mal-de-mer-producing camera work.

Right away, filmmaker Schipper — working from a screenplay he wrote with Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Eike Frederik Schulz — has a slight narrative problem. His female protagonist may be congenial in an uncomplicated way, but Sonne and his mates are actively stupid, the sort of meatheads that harmless “bro” comedies are built around, except that these dudes are serious lowlifes, and the characters to whom they “owe” their criminal job appear to be killers. Every single step Sonne and his pals take is a mistake. In their state, they can barely steal a few beers from a dozing shopkeeper. So they’re obviously all going to be killed, and probably Victoria as well for tagging along. We feel sorry for her, but only to a degree. The scenario of Victoria quickly becomes an academic exercise. We can see they’re all going to die; the only questions are how and how soon.

That frees us to relax and admire things like Schipper’s pacing (the speed of life, sometimes frantic, sometimes sluggish); Nils Frahm’s soundtrack music, plus such songs as “Burn with Me” by DJ Koze; and brazen little character touches, such as when Victoria unexpectedly sits down at the cafe’s piano and plays Franz Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz” for the stupefied Sonne. Victoria is not a movie to make us leave the theater feeling crafty and daring. It’s hard to watch because they’re such morons, and frustrating because we naturally want the protagonists to succeed, no matter how dumb they may be. And yet it casts a certain spell. It’s an anti-heroic story that challenges us to empathize. Not for everyone, but the most interesting films seldom are.


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