In the last act of Victoria, the male protagonist Sonne (Frederick Lau) asks a quivering man, who has obeyed his orders made at gunpoint, “Just how stupid are you?” I burst out laughing. It’s a tense moment, but the entire film has been an exercise in finding out just how stupid Sonne, and his infatuated paramour Victoria (Laia Costa) are. Every time you think there’s a limit to their stupidity and bad decisions, you’re proven wrong. It gets worse.
The film opens on Victoria dancing with abandon at a nightclub. There, she spots Sonne and his friends making trouble while trying to get into the club but being denied passage by the bouncer. As she heads home on her bike, she very clearly takes a path that will put her in the way of these men. Even though she suspects they’re up to no good: they insist the fancy car they’re hanging around is theirs — despite not having a key — and she jokingly points out their transparent lie. She’s drawn to them anyway.
While the evening starts out as fairly harmless flirtation, Victoria digs herself into deeper trouble and poorer judgement. They begin with petty theft and trespassing, and they build up to a bank robbery, which —surprise — goes wrong. That’s hardly a spoiler because it couldn’t have ended any other way: they’re all so goddamn stupid. Whereas the stupidity of the bank robbers in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks was part of the point, leading to plenty of laughs, in Victoria, it’s what makes the film frequently unbearable. We’re meant to empathize with the characters rather than gawk at them, but doing so is trying. You’re just waiting for it to end, badly.
The film’s big hook is that it’s all shot in a single take, like Russian Ark was and like last year’s Birdman was shot to appear to be. In Victoria, the purpose of the single take is to keep our adrenaline pumping as much as Victoria’s does: it’s a night that keeps going, keeps getting more intense, and we get no rest. To its credit, it’s actually exhausting watching the film. But it’s also not necessary. There are other ways to create that kind of tension, which could have allowed the film to get the very serious edit it needed. With a runtime of two-and-a-half hours, the film could easily lose an hour, and be the better for it.
Director and co-writer Sebastian Schipper seems much more fascinated in his characters than I ever was. Too much of the film feels like a lesser imitation of other films. When Victoria hops on the back of the bike that Sonne is riding, in the middle of the night, it’s clearly meant to be romantic. But the characters are such self-absorbed idiots with so little backstory or ability to make conversation that I felt nothing. Mostly, I longed for the superior nighttime biking scene in Oslo, August 31st, which was full of melancholy and emotion. Even the film’s one-shot seems derivative — a technical feat to lull you into watching a film that would be largely worthless without it.
The highlight of the film is when Victoria and her friends return to the nightclub where they first met after a long evening of excitement. This time, Schipper mutes all the diagetic music and replaces it with a slow, romantic score. As the lights flash and the bodies move, we see a different kind of euphoria and abandon. Victoria has discovered a new kind of freedom, a new kind of high. But it’s short-lived and a mistake. But at least here we can feel the desire for the chase and how that could have blocked her ability to think properly.
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Victoria screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it is now playing in the U.S.