The hyperbolic hoopla surrounding Sebastian Schipper’s directorial debut Victoria similar to Russian Ark Timecode and to a lesser extent Birdman and Gravity runs 138 minutes without a single cut; that’s like reading a review devoid of proper syntax or punctuation. In his grave, Lev Kuleshov just rolled over, and if he was buried with his editing scissors, he just clenched them tighter. If Victoria inspires anything, it’s a great admiration, not for this film’s experimentation, but the groundbreaking filmmakers that established cinema’s complex language.
We first meet the titular Victoria in the kinetic haze of strobe lights at a Berlin club. Before exiting the bar, four drunk and obnoxious men heckle the bouncer to be admitted in for free. In the next hour, Victoria and the men walk the streets, steal beer from a convenience store, and, meanwhile, she begins to flirt with Sonne, the most charming out of the ominous bunch. After an hour of loose banter, the film narrows its focus on the buildup to a bank robbery. Because one of the annoying delinquents is too drunk to be the getaway driver, Victoria gets entwined as a willing participant in the crime.
As a two-dimensional character, we are told Victoria was forced to play too much piano at a young age; so on this night, she unleashes a beast that’s always been hiding underneath – a trajectory that isn’t particularly interesting or convincing. Why the four friends would get very drunk a few hours before performing a heist (or even how they managed to sober up so quickly) is left to our imagination by this relatively unimaginative film. Great sympathy is inspired for these poor, poor people – oh, not the characters, the camera operators, of course.
But properly judging the film as it is, the trite plot, weak characters and ridiculous contrivances aside, there is a fundamental flaw to Victoria’s gimmick: editing is an essential part of how cinema creates meaning. Without information being relayed through cuts and juxtaposed shots, characters must spell out their motivations orally; they must explain their problems rather than allow the story to become alive in the mind of the viewer. In an attempt to be groundbreaking, Victoria feels primitive, something that retracts the possibilities of cinema. It’s a film in search of a world record, not a new language to reveal truth.
As the longest narrative film with a single take that I can think of, Victoria could be in the next issue of the Guinness Book of World Records next to the man who has the largest collection of barf bags. You probably won’t need to ask our friend Kuleshov what that juxtaposition means!
Predictable, overlong and way too drawn out, Victoria’s story is in service of its style, and not the other way around. A part of the exasperation is because Schipper is unable to explore any of the potential of his aesthetic. Minutes before I saw Victoria, I caught the harrowing Grand Jury Prize of the Cannes film festival, Son Of Saul, a film that also employs long takes. Where Son Of Saul experiments with a tight perspective, creating an immersive world through off-screen sound and a shallow depth of field, Victoria merely tracks the characters with boring compositions and steadicam movements. For the most part, Schipper seamlessly stages set-pieces and makeup effects on-the-fly (except for one instance where the camera is obviously passed between two cameramen), but it’s dazzling only for the feat, not the form’s affect.
We talk of plots telegraphing events from point A and point B, but in Victoria the characters literally travel that distance. With scenes running way longer than they should, and transitions that would’ve been left on the cutting room floor in any other film, the single take conceit leads to some uneven pacing and an overly indulgent running-time.
The press notes explicitly state that the film has “no CGI,” “no cuts,” and “no cheap tricks.” It also has no tension, no poetry and no artistry. Victoria is the cinematic equivalent of a person who memorizes the first thousand digits of pi, an odd accomplishment that is entirely pointless and tedious. 3.14 and editing are used for a reason. Bless the poor souls who have to hear it recited or watch this film!