The quest to make a single-take film is nothing new. Alfred Hitchcock bluffed his way with Rope by shooting scenes for up to 10 minutes in length (the maximum amount of film in a magazine) and then panning to a random item or manipulating the focus of the film for a split second and then cutting and matching the scenes to create the appearance of one, long, uninterrupted 80-minute story. It worked well enough back in 1948, but Rope has never been a movie the mainstream references as one of Hitchcock’s best.
Director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) gave it a shot with Timecode (2000) by using hand-held digital cameras to create four simultaneous 93-minute takes. All four stories in Figgis’ film intersected, but the results were jarring at times. In the end, Timecode concluded with a credit explaining how and when the movie was shot, an inclusion that helped prove — along with the largely improvised bare-bones script — that the film was more of an experiment than an actual story.
The most popular of all the one-shot efforts may very well be Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning Birdman. Employing similar tricks to Hitchcock, we were treated to an engrossing movie that toyed with the idea of reality and our perception of it.
All of which brings us to Sebastian Schipper’s single-take film Victoria. This German thriller has been hailed by critics and won many awards overseas. But whereas Birdman employed large chunks of digital wizardry to tell its story, Victoria is a legitimate 138-minute single-shot.
Victoria begins in a dance club in Belgium. One of the attendees, Victoria (Laia Costa), is lost in the moment. Her smile is contagious, but soon it’s glaringly apparent that she is unhappy. Having just moved from Madrid to take a job as a barista, her naivete and inability to speak German has kept her lonely until she meets four young men who have recently been ejected from the club — Sonne, Boxer, Blinker, and Fuss. Thanks to a drunken buzz and a desperation to make new friends, she tags along with them as they engage in random bursts of petty destruction and mischief. Of the four men, Victoria is most charmed by Sonne (Frederick Lau). Eventually, Sonne and Victoria visit the cafe where she works. It’s not due to open up for a few more hours, and so they sit in the cafe learning more about each other beyond surface pleasantries. But just as the two are starting to make an emotional connection, Sonne’s friends reveal their criminal intent and Victoria’s day spirals out of control. I won’t spoil what happens next, but it’s well worth the ride.
Technically, it’s amazing how Schipper’s uninterrupted, single-camera approach can capture so much. We go from late-evening moments of elation to moments of sadness inside an apartment under siege. To take a step back and ponder how all this was accomplished is astounding. The amount of preparation on the part of the cameramen and the actors who improvise much of their dialogue — not to mention the rest of the crew — must be applauded. The actors, particularly Lau and Costa, are to be praised. Lau is able to reveal the lost boy that hides behind the dangerous facade Sonne has created. And as our title character, Costa carries the film with every smile and tear. She is the film’s heart and soul. Even when you’re frustrated with her character’s haphazard choices, you want it to end well for her. Make no mistake, Schiipper deserves the acclaim he’s received for orchestrating this 138-minute movie.
In the end, the fact that a nominal chunk of this review has focused on the film’s cinematic stunt says a lot about how it should or will be taken by those who see it. Under normal conditions when one is engrossed in a film, one doesn’t marvel at that one dolly shot, point out how amazingly the costumes are, or exclaim, “Man, I love how they’re acting the hell out of that scene!” They are too focused by the film unfolding before their eyes. Victoria is impressive, and well worth watching again, but the length of the one-take stunt threatens to derail it. Quite honestly, it could have benefited from a trim here or there. Still, I highly recommend Schipper’s movie.