It seems that any filmmaker taking on the task of telling their story through one ambitious and seamless take will now, inevitably, have their film compared to Birdman, be labelled a gimmick, or both. Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria has fallen prey to both critiques and comparisons. However, while Victoria shares Birdman’s impeccably sensitive and intelligent camera-work, traces of the absurd, and even melancholic comedy, it is stripped back in style and rooted in a relatable malaise of realism. Though there are elements of dreaminess in Victoria’s character, seeking escapism from her lonely humdrum life in a foreign city, and in the child-like ambitions and criminal hijinks of the band of lost-boy men she encounters and finds acceptance amongst, it feels real and true. Victoria is neither babe nor action-heroine; she is real.
Initially, I was concerned I would be disappointed by a film trying and failing to be an edgy thriller, as it appeared to be marketed – a story in which a woman involves herself in a heist gone awry could easily become predictable and clichéd – but my fears were unfounded. Instead, Victoria places us amongst those outsiders on the inside, driven by a childlike longing to be accepted, to feel free and proud to be so. By clashing together strangers united by a sense of alienation and a hunger for thrills, Victoria explores what it is to be lonely, the strength of loyalty, and how far we will go to feel as if we are connected to other human beings despite the sacrifices involved. Its fluidity and fleeting connections convey the fluctuating and absurd – yet constant – landscape of life.
Although being tethered to real-time action initially makes for a slow start, and the realism of post-club, 4.30am chat at times becomes dull, all can be understood and forgiven as the action and empathy builds. The opening shot tantalises and hypnotises with steady, deep house music as we enter into Victoria’s fateful night. You may, while watching Victoria find yourself experiencing an inevitable sense of dread building at the prospect of her expected tragic fate. However her complicity, strength and the complexity of those around her makes for a film which might turn harrowing, and irritatingly action heavy, into something touching, remarkably innocent and at times very profound. The film slides effortlessly between perspectives, between the free-wheeling enjoyment of a Berlin morning and the darkness still lingering from the night – and unseen days – before. Where we would typically expect dichotomies and simplicity in character traits, such as villainy, within caustic characters we see vulnerability, desperation, and hope. Initially we wonder, “why, Victoria?” After all, the audience has known the characters Victoria encounters as long as she has. It is therefore a great triumph of Schipper’s that without camera trickery, lapses in time and observation, we come to care for them and long for their happiness and escape from what torments them.
The use of house music is solely diegetic, interspersed with a perfectly complimentary soundtrack provided by Nils Frahm, taking music from opposite ends of the atmospheric spectrum – house stirring up adrenaline, freedom and power, while Frahm’s reflective and gentle pieces provide a delicacy and subtext which cannot be conveyed through image alone, adding layers to the film. Schipper succeeds in providing intimate privacy in our inspection of characters despite his inability to edit and cut. In my opinion, one of the most moving and captivating scenes sees the triumphant self-assured house music melt to a non-diegetic Frahm track, altering the images of the rag-tag group shedding clothes and dancing frantically in the club where it all began. To onlookers, (and bouncers) they are hooligans, too high, too drunk, too much. To us, they are, for a precious few minutes, in their natural state; free, alive, and victorious.