‘Victoria’
Director:
Sebastian Schipper
Stars: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

It’s hard not to be cynical about “Victoria,” the hot new German drama which is hot chiefly — really, only — because it’s the latest film done in one continuous shot. That’s been done before; back in 2002, during the infancy of the digital film revolution, “Russian Ark” offered a 96-minute take. “Victoria” essentially goes one louder. It’s 138 minutes long (with glacially slow opening credits, as though to pad on an additional minute). Sure, it’s impressive now, but only until some enterprising wunderkind presents a one-shot movie that lasts 139 minutes.

For the record, for awhile it seems like “Victoria” may have a slight reason to exist beyond its stunt. Spanish actress Laia Costa is our magnetic star, whose Victoria emerges from a club in the wee hours of a typical Berlin night only to get caught up with some young dudes who might be up to no good. She finds them either playfully vandalizing a car or trying to steal it, neither which seems to faze her. She even finds herself warming to the flirtations of Sonne (Frederick Lau), who breaks from the pack and is soon hanging alone with her at the coffee shop at which she works. 

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This could be done with cuts, for sure, but the continuous shot adds an extra layer of tension. We forget about the gimmick and even the fact that there’s never been a cut — in fact, it was only the third take that got printed — and instead watch their wobbly relationship develop in real time. We can scan her face as she wonders: is he just a bro? Is he more than bro? It’s hard to enforce quality control on a film done in one shot, and in a city, and with a fair amount (though, in its first half, not too many) of moving parts. But the shots are mostly trained on the actors. The fact that they’re not great ad-libbers — lots of repeated phrases, reams of stammering, few lines of dialogue sticking out — makes it seen like we’re watching an only somewhat fabricated moment. It may not justify the stunt, but it’s good enough.

And then, halfway through, Sonne whimsically drags Victoria along on a bank heist. It’s like if “Before Sunrise” suddenly turned into a minimalist “Heat,” complete with a robbery scene shown entirely from within the getaway vehicle. That last bit is swiped from the classic noir “Gun Crazy,” another film using its limitations (in that film’s case, money) as inspiration. There’s shaky-cam running, awkward shooting and several attempts at procuring shelter while the actors segue from chill naturalism to all-caps shouting and whimpering. It’s a “cool” way to justify the film’s existence, because 2 ¼ hours is too long for a nice romance and crime is awesome.

But the first half has its modest pleasures, chief among them Costa. Victoria is largely enigmatic, and we can tease out a bit of backstory: She’s new to a country whose language (like many Berlin transplants these days) she doesn’t speak. She has a history of classical piano, which she abandoned. But “Victoria” lives in the now, and so does Victoria. It’s a good actor watching movie, allowing us to study Costa’s open face, excitable smile and sometimes reckless, eventually inexplicable impulsiveness. We still don’t know why she goes along on a crime spree, or why she keeps insisting, when Sonne nervously asks, that she’s OK. Unlike some of its other conceptual hiccups, that is a deal-breaker, and the second “Victoria” decides it should be more than a one-take stunt is when it becomes nothing more than a one-take stunt.

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