Talking Movies: Shot in a single 138-minute take, can Victoria live up to its bold premise?

Victoria was directed by German actor and filmmaker Sebastian Schipper.

Victoria opens Oct. 23 at FilmScene.

I chafe at the word “gimmick.” It’s often used in lieu of something more meaningful to describe the experimental, the exciting, or the formally different. By calling something a “gimmick,” an audience doesn’t have to admit its discomfort with the unfamiliar. But that’s not the case when I call bank-heist movie Victoria mostly a gimmick. I’m using the word according to its definition: “a trick or a device used to attract business attention.”

The trick in Victoria is a single shot; the 138-minute movie is made of one long, continuous take that follows the protagonists through a small chunk of Berlin as they drink, rob a bank, run from the police, and, in the case of two of them, steal a baby. It follows them walking from club to rooftop, from rooftop to coffee shop, from coffee shop to car to bank. It follows them from bank back to club. And so on.

The camera captures Victoria, the lead protagonist, in most of the shots. The movie begins in the club where Victoria, played brilliantly by Laia Costa, meets the soon-to-be bank robbers in a club. She’s in Berlin for just a few months, visiting from Spain, and she’s eager to make friends. Her new friends want her to be the getaway driver in a bank heist, and she agrees. The character herself is compelling, but her backstory is flimsy, and her acquiescence to the robbers is pretty unbelievable. The single shot doesn’t help; rather than adding to the audience’s understanding of the character’s complexity, the camerawork adds to that tired yet true shortfall of so many movies: the male gaze. We watch her, and we watch her more, and we want her, but we care little about her as a person. It’s difficult to care, after all, since she’s positioned, for the most part, as a pawn of the men she’s with. What could have been an interrogation of the way cameras objectify women—never letting them out of sight—becomes just another way cameras objectify women, even when they’re wrapped up in the task of capturing two hours of real-time action.

That task, the movie’s principle draw, is indeed impressive. But it’s not enough. A gimmick becomes more than a gimmick when it adds to the meaning of a thing. See David Foster Wallace’s footnotes or Joe Wenderoth’s comment-cards book Letters to Wendy’s. See Flexible Fabric Band-Aids. All of these things have special features that may seem like they’re there just to garner attention or make money, but those special features turn out to be actually useful, whether it’s by adding meaning and self-awareness, as in Wallace’s footnotes, or whether it’s by sticking well, as with the Band-Aids.

So the question is: Does the single shot of Victoria add to the movie’s meaning? If only the plot were more believable, or more complex, then the answer might be yes. Yes because that one shot is wildly impressive, and it is, to use an uninteresting word, interesting to feel the tension of filming while also feeling the narrative tension of what’s going on on screen. The problem is what’s going on on screen isn’t terribly tense, and the movie ends up dragging.

That’s certainly not the fault of the acting, which, aside from the camerawork, is the movie’s strongest feature. Victoria may have motives that come across as inauthentic or unbelievable, but her emotions are anything but, giving the movie the psychological resonance—and some tension too—that its plot leaves out, especially in one of the movie’s final scenes, which has to be one of film’s best and most believable portrayal’s of overwhelmed-by-grief-and-exhaustion sobbing.

Acting aside, the movie is just plain fine. The gimmick is exciting to watch; after all, there’s narrative in making more than two hours of real-time action work, and the plot itself has its captivating moments. But for both movie and movie-making to be truly satisfying, Victoria might have benefited from the ungimmicky tool of editing.

Rachel Z. Arndt’s middle name is the German word for sugar. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 186.