Can a film work in a single, unbroken shot? Victoria shows it can

In avoiding a single cut, Sebastian Schipper’s thriller allows the actors to relish building a performance chronologically.

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Jean-Luc Godard popularised the jump-cut in À bout de souffle, the larky 1960 tale of an amateur gangster and his elfin, civilian girlfriend. Godard cut because he could: each snip of the celluloid was a declaration of freedom, a rebuke to convention and continuity. He also cut because he had to: he was contracted to bring the movie in at less than 90 minutes. It was a revolution in film style. But even revolutions harden into rituals, and no one would jump at a jump-cut now.

In this context, Sebastian Schipper’s thriller Victoria should be seen as every bit as miraculous as Godard’s film. It, too, involves an amateur gangster and his elfin, civilian girlfriend. The difference is that there are no cuts. Not one. Nor are there any traces of the digital trickery of Birdman, which masqueraded cheekily as a single, seamless shot. From the moment Victoria kicks off in a Berlin nightclub until it winds down on the city’s deserted dawn streets almost two and a half hours later, every inch of the footage is unscarred by edits. The film scarcely draws a breath and nor do we.

We first encounter Victoria (Laia Costa) as a blur amid strobe lights. She has been dancing the night away on her own, which is one indication that she may not be as blissed out as she appears. Another is that she is a Spaniard living and working in Berlin though she does not speak German. In a film that has no recourse to cutaways to show people exchanging information out of Victoria’s earshot, the language barrier is convenient. When she meets Sonne (Frederick Lau), a charmer with a face like a boxing glove, she is able to converse with him in English. But when secrets demand to be discussed in front of her, he and his friends simply switch to German. We get the benefit of subtitles: Victoria remains oblivious.

Her delusional idealism, the extent to which she will pretend that everything is tickety-boo despite evidence to the contrary, is one of the subjects of the film. Soon after meeting Sonne, she accompanies him to an off-licence where he swipes beers from under the nose of the dozing shopkeeper. As if Victoria’s laughter didn’t make her complicit enough, she snatches a bag of peanuts on the way out. “I’m gonna break the rules!” she hoots. Not unlike the movie that shares her name. In common with the heroine of Run Lola Run, another Berlin-set breakneck thriller, Victoria is a good girl on the brink of going bad. When Sonne queries her paltry wage, she exclaims: “I should kill my boss!” She gives her new pals a fright by dangling her legs off the edge of their rooftop hideout. And when Sonne asks her for a favour, she flutters her lashes and grins, “Is it something bad?” You might say that.

Film actors rarely enjoy the luxury available to their theatrical counterparts of building a performance chronologically. One of the unusual joys of Victoria is seeing cast members relish their freedoms while concealing any concerns about bumping into the furniture and spoiling the take – or, in this case, the whole movie. It’s remarkable watching Costa progress in real time from a woman too timid to jump the toilet queue to a snarling, gun-toting outlaw.

When the plot is at its most ridiculous, the chemistry between Costa and Lau gets the film through. Their romance resembles an entire marriage compressed into a few hours, something Schipper seems to acknowledge by saddling them at one point with a baby.

This isn’t the first narrative film comprised of a single unbroken shot. Previous instances include Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Mike Figgis’s Timecode, which was really four one-take movies playing simultaneously on one screen. Logistically, however, it is the most complicated. It proceeds from a basement dive to rooftops and back down again, taking in a shoot-out, a robbery, chases on foot and by car and a brief piano recital. The challenge turns out to be not so much keeping the pace up as finding ways to vary the tempo. But Schipper and his crew (special mention and an athletics medal go to the fleet-footed cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) make it all look like a walk in the park. They merit acclaim and more: to Victoria, the spoils. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 31 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail