Film Noir Files – Victoria
Pulling An All Nighter
The strangest things happen at night. For the title character of Victoria (2015), what starts out innocently enough turns deadly serious when she is placed in an increasingly dangerous situation. That’s the basic essence of noir, when you think about it: escalating desperation. A city that looks inviting switches into an urban nightmare, where the buildings close in on you and your escape routes quickly disappear. It’s a tried and true theme, and makes for strong drama.
Our setting is modern day Berlin. Victoria (Laia Costa) is a transport from Spain who makes her way working in a local café. At the start of our story, she’s young and vibrant. Even though she has to open the café early in the morning, Victoria sees no problem spending the night before dancing and drinking away at a nearby club. On this particular night, she meets four Berlin guys who – by all accounts – seem friendly. Against her better judgment, Victoria decides to spend some extra time with the guys: drinking, laughing, and hanging out on the roof of a building to see the sun rise. She also develops an attraction to one of them, Sonne (Frederick Lau), causing her to stay out longer than she should.
Sebastian Schipper – who directs and developed the story with Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Eike Frederik Schulz – spends the first half developing the chemistry between Victoria, Sonne, and the rest of the guys. Even though the idea of a lone woman suddenly hanging out with four complete strangers seems a bit of a stretch, Schipper does a good enough job to make it believable. Much of the dialogue is improvised (the screenplay was reportedly only 12 pages long), but the performances amongst the main actors show a naturalism that works. The entire plot happens in real time, if we step back we could confuse the first half as something akin to what Richard Linklater would do: just observing people behaving within their own skins. The romance between Victoria and Sonne comes without needing to be forced. A key scene – in which Victoria plays the piano for Sonne – has a tenderness that’s almost sweet.
That Got Out Of Hand Quickly…
But in noir, nothing goes the way we think it will. As the night progresses into the morning, Victoria discovers that the guys aren’t exactly what she thought they were (of course). One of them, Boxer (Franz Rogowski), has a criminal past, and is indebted to a mobster that calls on him that very night. Before she even realizes what’s happening, Victoria gets swept up in a risky bank heist, with her suddenly being the getaway driver. She spends the second half of the film torn between the friendships she has developed amongst these guys and the crime she’s now taking part in.
On paper, this seems highly improbable. To think that a woman would suddenly be part of a stick up with people she just met pushes the limits of believability. But Schipper develops the characters to the point where I was able to suspend my disbelief fairly easily. One of the more interesting aspects is how Schipper and his team use the surrounding environments like an additional character. Victoria and the guys are always going somewhere: into buildings, down hallways, through apartments. They travel from grungy bars to five star hotels, all while maintaining a constant character flow. The city bears down on them, especially when they attempt to rob the bank and their ensuing escape from the authorities.
It should also be mentioned that one of the main selling points of Victoria is that it was done in one unbroken shot. With his cinematographer (Sturla Brandth Grovlen), Schipper filled the two hour and eighteen minute runtime without a single cut. This is only the second European film to accomplish such a feat (after Russian Ark (2002)), and doesn’t rely on any special effects or sneaky camera tricks (see Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) or Rope (1948)). The long shot does provide for a unique viewing experience. There’s a kind of nervous energy throughout the narrative. The handheld approach lends toward the unpredictable – although everyone involved had a basic idea of where things were going, no one could have guessed any accidents or slip ups happening. Amazingly – just like Russian Ark – it took three takes to get the shot used for the final film.
I mention the unbroken shot late in this review because after a while it becomes less and less noticeable. The gimmick of the approach didn’t take away from the tension of the story. In fact, Schipper’s direction and Grovlen’s cinematography were so well executed that I nearly forgot that no cuts were made. Capturing the entire story in one take benefited the performances also, especially for Laia Costa and Frederick Lau. By the end their characters are weary and exhausted, and much of that is gained because they had to maintain this high level for such an extended period of time, like a stage performance. When the film begins, we are in the dead of night. By the time it’s over, the sun has risen. The unbroken shot is more impressive after the movie is over and we get to reflect on everything that we’ve seen.
A City That Doesn’t Sleep
Victoria is the kind of neo noir that does it right. It takes a classic premise and flips it in a way that’s new and exciting. There’s a sense of urgent realism coursing through its veins. It gradually pulls you in then holds you tight and doesn’t let go. By the end – just like the main character – we’re in serious need for a cup of coffee.
Victoria will play on February 22nd as the closing film of SIFF’s Noir City 2017