MSPIFF 2015: “Victoria”

This review is from the U.S. premiere screening at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

Although I lament the steady decline in the use and projection of film stock in modern cinema, one particular consolation in the advent of digital formats is the opportunity afforded to more filmmakers—especially in the independent space—to fully realize their visions with bolder techniques that are much more affordable. One such example is Victoria, Golden Bear nominee and Silver Bear winner for cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The 140 minute film was shot in one long, continuous take, but it does not rely on convenient camera movements to insert “hidden” cuts. Unlike the recent Best Picture winner Birdman, the long take in Victoria is not an illusion of editing. Instead we get a cinematic tour de force.

The film is named after its protagonist, a young woman (played by Laia Costa) living in Berlin as a way to remove herself from her old life in Madrid. We soon learn she is a frequent partygoer, with the film opening to pulsating electronic dance music and flashing strobe lights of an underground nightclub. Victoria seems perfectly content to dance—and live—in her own little world. That is until it collides with a group of friendly young German men, and they spend the rest of the night traipsing the streets of Berlin. Since it has been disclosed in a number of promotions for the film, I do not feel remiss in mentioning it here: what begins as night of languid revelry quickly escalates into violent crime and the manhunt that ensues.

It is all captured—if not always at a palpitating intensity then at least at a heightened level of intimacy—by Grøvlen and his handheld camerawork. In a post-screening Q&A session, Grøvlen explained that the cast and crew rehearsed for three weeks before filming (with only a twelve-page treatment as a screenplay). The entire film was shot only three times, choosing the last take for the final product. Consequently, much of the camera movement and changes in focus are improvised, but Grøvlen still manages to capture some expertly blocked compositions. In some ways one long take is liberating, but in other ways it makes unique demands of other aspects of the film.

We come to expect—often subconsciously—that editing will signpost the progression of the film and establish a rhythm. In the absence of this common filmmaking tool, the flow and pace of Victoria is carried by the music and sound mixing. At times the moody score will fade in and drown out all other sound, serving as a transition but also as a brief dose of catharsis, and other times the only sound comes from the cacophony of the city, complete with blaring car alarms and buzzing streetlights. The sound mix and score blend together during a pivotal moment for Victoria, emphasizing the dichotomy of the fateful decision she is about to make.

And there is so much riding on Laia Costa’s performance as Victoria as well as the other main actors, including Frederick Lau (resembling a young Tom Hardy in appearance and conflicted fortitude) as Sonne, the de facto leader of his group of friends, who grows fond of Victoria over the course of the night. The character arc she traverses is quite demanding for a young actor, and Costa mostly succeeds, especially in her more existential moments. Victoria and Sonne are attracted to each other because they are both inwardly conflicted, dissatisfied with the lives they lived to this point and impressionable to making rash decisions. The irreversible choices they make are influenced by a sense of duty to each other and their friends (one friend in particular, named Boxer, cannot seem to escape the wrong side of the law), but they are more driven by the need to find something—anything—that makes them feel alive. In that sense Victoria could be any of us. In many ways she is us.

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