I’m a long shot agnostic. Your average film bro tends to worship at the altar of complicated, extended long shots: wander into an IMDB message board (actually, don’t), and you’ll find plenty of commenters lauding and comparing especially difficult ‘tracking shots.’ Used well, I have zero problem with a long shot. They’re great at creating a sense of space – as per the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas – amplifying tension – as in the famous opening to Touch of Evil – or a sense of chaotic verisimilitude – as in Children of Men.
Mike D’Angelo, prominent long shot sceptic, roundly attacked that last film’s use of long shots in a now (in)famous article for the AV Club. I don’t share D’Angelo’s disdain for that scene; watching it for the first time in a cinema, I didn’t even realise that it was an unbroken shot, just that it was utterly gripping. But I do understand his point of view. Too many directors utilise these technically-difficult achievements as a bit of showmanship, something that detracts from the effect of their work rather than amplifying it.
Enter Victoria. There’s no particular reason why this generic German crime/romance-thriller needs to be executed in a single take, aside from it making good marketing copy. There’s no sense of real artistry here (unlike Iran’s Fish & Cat, which tacitly challenged assumptions of temporality in its use of a long shot), nor any synchronicity between said showmanship and the story (for all its flaws, Birdman at least aligned its faux-long-shot wankery with its protagonist’s empty ambition). Instead, this is a purely technical challenge, which leaves the film proper struggling to justify its existence.
For a little while, at least, the unbroken shot conceit works. Victoria opens on its eponymous protagonist (Laia Costa), a Spanish concert-pianist-turned-barista who’s recently moved to Berlin. She dances through a hazy nightclub and, on her way home, finds herself tagging along with a quartet of German hooligans. For fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, the absence of cuts captures that sense of headlong abandon of a messy night (or morning) out. Victoria’s boozy spontaneity suits the camera’s lurching through Berlin streets …for a while.
But then the story reaches a natural pause, the moment when the aura of enchantment starts to fade away and reality bleeds back in. “We should go to the roof,” one of the boys suggests, and it’s the perfect moment for a cut. We don’t need to see these five youngsters walk down the street, wait for the lift, walk into the lift, stroll out onto the roof. That’s not why we go to the movies. But that’s exactly what we see, with director Sebastian Schipper overlaying the banal expedition with ominous piano-electro. It doesn’t even look good – the lighting is ugly, the framing is pedestrian, and I’m not inclined to forgive such flaws simply because Schipper is holding to an unnecessary gimmick.
The absence of dialogue in this scene is, perhaps, supposed to be poetic. It’s not, though. In fact, if I’d had to guess, I’d suggest that one of the actors fluffed a line – in a heavily improvised ‘script’ – and, unable to cut around it, Schipper elected to mask the mistake with music. There’s no poetry here at all, really. Sometimes the dialogue feels naturalistic, but then someone inexplicably blurts out information that we gather must be relevant to the plot to follow – which involves armed robbery and guns and tragedy and a whole bunch of clichés we’ve seen before in better films: better-made, better-written films that understood the power of editing.
If Victoria had been made more conventionally, utilising the time-honoured power of basic cinematic conventions … it still wouldn’t have been a great film. This is a stock thriller, without an narrative, character or thematic elements to distinguish it from its forebears. Instead, we rely on a technical stunt that actually makes the film worse than it would have been without it. But, hey, I guess we’re talking about it. That’s all you should do, though: don’t bother checking this one out.