Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Victoria" Vexes

Sebastian Schipper's German drama, "Victoria," has rightly won praise for its daring camera work.  The entire 138 minute film is shot in a single take, following the title character during an eventful night in Berlin.  I found the film extremely difficult to sit through though, not because of the extensive shakeycam, but because the characters and story are an absolutely implausible mess.

Victoria (Laia Costa) is a recent immigrant from Madrid, who works at a café for scant wages, and doesn't speak much German.  Thus, most of the dialogue is in heavily accented English.  One night, on her way home from a club, she meets a group of young men including Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuss (Max Mauff), who invite her to hang out and party with them.  Victoria takes a liking to Sonne, and unwittingly gets caught up in a job that Boxer has agreed to pull for a local crime boss.

About ten minutes into "Victoria," as I watched our heroine agree to go off with a pack of drunken hooligans she had just met, I decided that Victoria was a complete idiot.  These guys start the movie off being refused entry to the club, spend a painfully long time talking Victoria into spending longer and longer stretches of time with them, and once they had her isolated they could have very easily assaulted her or worse.  Not knowing much about the film except that it was some kind of action thriller, I expected that this was going to turn out to be a human trafficking story instead of one about an entirely different kind of crime.  Maybe cultural differences explain away some of this, but I spent much of the first act wondering when Victoria was going to be roofied.

The pacing also drove me to distraction.  The first hour of the film is just following the group as they drink beers and meander around Berlin, in search of a good time.  Almost all the dialogue is improvised, and quite a bit of it is difficult to understand because of the thick accents.  At one point around the midway point of the movie, Victoria and Sonne are able to spend some time alone, and I became hopeful that the movie might turn out to be a low key love story - so little had happened by that point that surely this couldn't be an action film.   But, alas, after that one scene of decent interaction between our lovebirds, suddenly there's a small crisis that snowballs into a big one, and there are a barrage of illogical twists and turns.  Because of course the young woman you've known for less than two hours who speaks no German should be asked to be your getaway driver.  Of course.

it's a shame because when Laila Costa is actually given a few minutes to expound a bit on Victoria's past, she's quite compelling.  The rest of the time she comes across as painfully naïve, taking stupid risks and displaying a profoundly poor sense of judgment.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that not only was she careless and unthinking, but really an awful human being.  At least she fares better than Sonne and Boxer and the rest, who barely register as distinct personalities.  They all seem to boast and lie and panic in the exact same ways.  What really kills the film for me is how little it cares about showing you who these people are.  There's almost nothing to latch on to with any of them.  The guys are a standard collection of petty thieves who give the viewer every reason to think the worst of them, and nothing is ever really offered to refute that.  Sonne is maybe humanized a little more than the others, but not much.

The slowly escalating heist and chase sequences that make up the final parts of the firm are technically impressive and do provide some good thrills, but they're not worth sitting through the first half of the film to see.  And they're so hamstrung by all the weak contrivances and bad decisions that it took to get all the characters to that point that I couldn't enjoy them fully.  I wish the filmmakers had spent a fraction of the time they spent on the cinematography on a solid, cohesive script.  

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