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Victoria (2015)

Withdrawal Withdrawal

"One City. One Night. One Take." The tagline for Victoria is really boring, until you consider the clever double-entendre of the last phrase. This is a heist film, and unlike the location-hopping Ocean's films or effects-heavy Ant-Man, Sebastian Schipper's Berlin-set crime drama is low-fi-intimate by design: the whole thing was filmed in real-time, in a single take.

You're probably thinking one of two things:

1. Oh, cool! Another Birdman!

2. Oh, God. Another Birdman.

Relax. This is no bandwagon-jumper. Victoria is a true one-take-pony, whereas Birdman was a cleverly stitched together single-shot illusion. When Schipper called "Action!" on his cast and crew at 4:30am on April 27, 2014, the characters' story clock began ticking. Production wrapped two hours and eighteen minutes later, as the whirlwind tale of young love and bad decisions came to its natural, bloody conclusion. The movie is a gimmick, sure. But never forget that gimmicks can be gateways to unforgettable cinematic experiences.

Because this film hinges on in-the-moment complications, I'll paint in broad strokes. Victoria (Laia Costa) is a young Spanish waitress working in a German cafe. On her way home from clubbing one night, she encounters a group of boisterous guys, led by the devilishly charming Sonne (Frederick Lau). They wander the dark city streets, shoplifting drinks, smoking, and getting to know the inebriated versions of one another. The strangers become like brothers to Victoria, except for Sonne, who's clearly angling for something more.

As Victoria prepares to open her shop, one of the guys gets an urgent phone call. It's not a spoiler to say that a bank heist is around the corner, or that Victoria will play a crucial part in its execution. But I'll leave the whys and hows for you to discover and interpret. Suffice it to say that, by dawn, Victoria and Sonne have learned much more about each other than many couples do in a lifetime.

Had Victoria been a by-the-numbers bank-robbery, Schipper could have stood proudly by his work and proclaimed it a marvel of technical execution. The camerawork is eerily fluid, following characters in and out of crowded clubs, down alleyways, and into claustrophobic cars--without once feeling as though a hand-off is taking place behind the lens. The locations are so varied (and some of them so expansive) that half the fun of watching the movie is figuring out just how the hell this crew pulled it off. I doubt even repeat viewings would detract from the wonder Schipper evokes here.

Victoria is not strictly by-the-numbers. Sure, there are some real Reservoir Dogs in Sonne's crew (the nervous guy, the dangerous guy, the guy who's put out of commission early on), but the actors are so likable and the circumstances under which we meet and follow them are so immediate that it is only in the infrequent pockets of breath that the screenplay's seams begin to show. In a parallel reality, I would love to see the Before Sunrise version of Victoria, where Costa and Lau stroll, laugh, and bond, free from criminal entanglements--or any kind of plot, for that matter. These performers perfect Schipper's illusion that the audience is a free-roaming ball of consciousness dropping in on real people, and Victoria and Sonne's romance is one of this year's greats.

On the downside, a movie that demands full engagement for nearly two-and-a-half hours leaves the door to scrutiny wide open. Minor quibbles need to be rationalized in the moment or (if one is lucky enough to temporarily steer into full immersion) ignored entirely. I left Victoria with a nagging question about its final shot. Granted, I don't know when Berlin officially "wakes" up on weekends, but Schipper's early morning look at the city had a distinct "Closed for Filming" vibe. Just as logic tends to boot one from a dream, this puzzlement knocked me right out of Victoria's world--luckily, it was done with me, anyway.

I suppose every era is a potentially great one for cinema, but it feels like we're living through something particularly special here. Far from the monster-budget world of mainstream product is a galaxy of innovators and next-gen dreamers who see the iPhone as the ultimate portable film studio, or who reject the norm of chaotic editing. Single-take pictures are already a micro-trend, but instead of simply attracting audience with a gimmick, filmmakers like Iñárritu and Schipper invite us to re-examine what we thought possible with the form. By opening our eyes to corners of reality we hadn't thought possible in a movie, they rouse dormant avenues of our brains that reveal incredible opportunities beyond the theatre walls.

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