On paper, this sounded amazing. A high-adrenaline heist thriller shot in a single take on the early morning streets of Berlin. No cuts, no trickery, just one long hand-held take. I love a narrative gimmick, me, and this sounded right up my street. Here’s the trailer. Fun, eh?
I should have been warned. Last time I fell for this kind of thing, I wasted an hour and a half of my life watching “Russian Ark”, which is a fabulously glitzy single-take ramble through the rooms of the Winter Palace of the Hermitage Museum. Totally spectacular and technically brilliant, but (for me at any rate) it lost the plot, along with my attention, about halfway round. It became far more entertaining to wonder about all the frantic scurrying around there must have been going on behind the scenes.
The thing is, gimmicks are great fun, but if that’s all there is, the story fails to resonate. The main reason why Pixar were successful from the off wasn’t just that they produced the first-ever full-length computer-animated film. It was that they coupled their technical brilliance with a terrific story, and it’s the story that ultimately lingers on. The clue’s in the title of their first feature, “Toy Story”. It’s technology (toys) and narrative (story) working together. I’m really looking forward to putting that into a PowerPoint presentation one day, BTW.
“Victoria” is, despite the hype, not a great film. For me (again), while it was technically clever, it didn’t work at all as a story. However, it didn’t work at all in quite an interesting way, because not only did the gimmick fail to serve the story – it actually wrecked it completely.
Now from this point on there will be spoilers, so I’ll make a break and then continue.
Still here? Good.
Right, the premise of the story is that a young Spanish girl (Victoria) alone in Berlin hooks up with a bunch of four dodgy blokes and ends up driving a stolen van for them when they take part in a hurriedly-organised armed raid on a bank. This is set up by a proper hardcore villain who did some favours for one of the four (Boxer) while he was in prison. Obviously this all goes horribly wrong, and we watch how it ultimately plays out (basically, all but one of the four die and she herself gets off scot free). This takes place over a period of roughly two and a half hours.
I can see you asking the first question, which is why in God’s name does this girl end up getting involved in all this? And this is where the main problem arises, because the film needs to spend a lot of effort showing us her motivation. So, for example, as the film opens, she is dancing wildly in a club on her own, she goes to the bar, downs a shot of Schnapps in one and offers to buy one for the barman. However, he fails to show any interest in her, so she gets on her bike and starts to cycle home. Therefore we have established quite quickly that she is lonely and vulnerable. So far so good.
Getting her credibly involved with this bunch of losers is trickier. We meet them as she leaves the club. They have no money and are being refused entrance. One of them (Sonne) starts hitting on her in the way that men in movies always hit on young, lonely, vulnerable, drunk girls and she responds in the way that young, lonely, vulnerable, drunk girls always do in movies, by developing a bad case of the nervous giggles and playing along with whatever japes he gets up to – rather than, say, waving a can of pepper spray at him and saying that if he doesn’t back off, he will get a face full.
Anyway, the four are celebrating the birthday of one of them, Fuß (who is already completely paralytic) and they and Victoria begin hanging out, stealing some bottles of beer from an all-night store whose owner is fast asleep being the counter (thus usefully, I suppose, showing that Victoria is not above a bit of petty thievery herself) and climbing out onto the roof of a block of flats to drink it. Then Victoria says she has to go as she has to open the café where she works in a couple of hours, and Sonne offers to see her there. She agrees to him coming with her.
At the café, they flirt a bit more, including a splendidly daft bit where Victoria turns out to be a failed classical piano player (cue more angst from her and words of comfort from Sonne) and then at last the tempo begins to ramp up a bit when Boxer turns up to say that his villain chum is demanding that they do the bank job straight away. The four blokes disappear in a stolen van. However, they reappear soon afterwards because Fuß is now throwing up everywhere and can’t take part in the heist. They need a driver and Sonne asks Victoria if she’ll do it. UNBELIEVABLY, she agrees, although surely if she’s that keen on him, she can arrange to see him some other time soon anyway? However, AT LONG BLOODY LAST WE ARE FINALLY OFF.
We are now ROUGHLY AN HOUR into the film. I saw the trailer. I read the reviews. I was promised a high-adrenaline heist thriller. IT IS ONLY JUST STARTING. I know WHY it is only just starting, because they had to spend the last hour preparing Victoria for saying yes to joining them on this stupid mission BUT TO BE HONEST I’M STILL NOT SURE I’M EVEN BUYING THAT.
A thriller where the time sags is not a good thing, and one that doesn’t keep you asking questions is an even worse thing. And that’s the second big problem with this film. Because of the real-time narrative, it has to keep setting everything up before it happens. There are, of course, no flashbacks. There are no dangling questions. And the thing is, if you’re not providing the questions for the audience to ask, they’ll think of a few themselves. Such as, why on earth has Mr Big decided to call them together and prepare them for this heist literally a quarter of an hour before it takes place? Is he even more of an idiot than they are?
Also, didn’t they leave Fuß in the café? So after the raid and the brief interlude tiresomely celebrating in the club, why do they go back to the now-abandoned getaway van to try to retrieve him? (I was really confused about this.)
And that baby that Sonne and Victoria steal as cover for their escape – it’s a bit quiet, isn’t it? Also, how come no-one spots them abandoning it in a shopfront? And does it get reunited with its parents? (I was really quite uneasy about this.)
How come they manage to flag a taxi down in the middle of an area subject to total police lock-down?
And when they take refuge in a posh hotel at what I assume was around 7am, why isn’t the lobby full of businessmen checking out and people going to breakfast? Why is it empty apart from one single receptionist?
If I’d had been provided with a load of other questions to occupy myself with, I wouldn’t have started asking these until much, much later. But the only question the film was actually offering me instead was “Are these people going to get away with it?” and to be honest, I couldn’t have given a monkey’s about any of the blokes and I wasn’t even too sure about Victoria herself. And even then, when Sonne is about to expire in the hotel suite, he actually tells Victoria to take the money and go, because no-one knows who she is. Which basically tells us exactly what how she’s going to get away with it, thus removing the need for that question. And sure enough, that’s precisely what she does. The only tension involved in the final scene was from me asking MY final question, which was “Why for God’s sake doesn’t she clean Sonne’s blood off herself before she walks out into the street – isn’t someone going to notice?”
So, yes, this film annoyed me. I was so looking forward to it. To be fair, some of it was actually pretty good. I liked the generally scuzzy feel to it and the realistic dialogue. Even when the guy playing Sonne fluffed his lines about halfway through (saying “Hotel” instead of “Café”), it seemed like he was just being naturalistic rather than making a small mistake that would entail going through the whole thing again another day (then again, I thought all of that while watching the movie – I shouldn’t have had time to). And the ramshackle nature of the heist was endearing – I liked the fact that they’d managed to steal a van with a door that didn’t work properly, and I enjoyed the moment when Victoria managed to stall it at the exact moment when they’d gone in to carry out the raid.
But that wasn’t enough, really. It just didn’t thrill me. I suppose what I was expecting was something like this stupidly violent Russian music video (ignore the dubious choice of cover shot):
There’s more story crammed into those five minutes than in the whole two and a half hours of “Victoria”. The same director’s got a whole full-length film, “Hardcore Henry”, in a similar style coming out later on this year. Now that could be something. Still, I’m not building my hopes up this time.