Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Victoria

Directed by: Sebastian Schipper

Produced by: Jan Dressler
Christiane Dressler
Sebastian Schipper

Screenplay by: Olivia Neergaard-Holm
Sebastian Schipper
Eike Frederik Schulz

Starring: Laia Costa
Frederick Lau
Franz Rogowski
Burak Yigit
Max Mauff
Andre Hennicke

Music by: Nils Brahm

Cinematography by: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Editing by: Olivia Neergaard-Holm

Studio(s): MonkeyBoy
Radical Media
Westdeutscher Rundfunk

Distributed by: Senator Film (Germany)
Adopt Films (United States)
Curzon Artifical Eye (United Kingdom)

Release date(s): February 7, 2015 (Berlin International Film Festival)
June 11, 2015 (Germany)
October 9, 2015 (United States, limited)
April 1, 2016 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 138 minutes

Country: Germany

Language(s): German

Production budget: N/A

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $3, 191, 971 (only ten territories accumulated)

Today's film up for review is Victoria, the German picture from director Sebastian Schipper, which gained a fair amount of international attention for being shot completely in a single continuous take. It was actually my Dad who flagged it up to me a while back, so even though I saw it about a month ago and am only getting round to reviewing it now, it has been on my radar for some time. Widely acclaimed and receiving several gongs at the 2015 German Film Awards, including Best Feature Film, it was one of eight films shortlisted by Germany for submission into the 88th Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film category, but was disqualified because of the high percentage of English dialogue, which we'll get to in a bit. It was released in the United Kingdom back in April of 2016, and so therefore it is eligible for me to review. Story goes that Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Spanish girl from Madrid who has recently immigrated to Berlin, does not speak the German language well or know anyone in the city, is working for a meagre wage in a cafe, leaves a nightclub around four in the morning and bumps into a group of four young men who were denied entry to the club. They invite her for a walk, an informal guided tour of the city, steal some alcohol, smoke some weed, and quickly become acquainted with one another. However, behind the happy-go-lucky exterior appearances, something deeper, darker and more sinister is going on with the young men, and by virtue of association Victoria is drawn into a plot which will make this an important night for all of them. Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, I'll just get out there and address the elephant in the room: the cinematography in this film is absolutely extraordinary. Now I might be biased, given that I'm a champion of the long take, most famously Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse was my favourite film of the year whereas my friend absolutely hated it. The whole one-take thing has been done before, but recently it has become somewhat in vogue with Birdman having won Best Picture a few years ago, but the work here by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is on another level altogether. Notwithstanding the technical mastery, which shows a deep understanding of imaginative, cinematic storytelling through the techniques employed, but the outright physicality of being able to accomplish this is really something. It's almost a performance in itself to be able to hit all of these beats appropriately, capturing everything that is going on onscreen. It's also much more remarkable when you take into account the restrictions placed on the production. Sebastian Schipper was forced to film a 'jump-cut' version in order to get financiers on board, in case he couldn't get the 'true one-take,' but after that was filmed over ten days, the budget only permitted three attempts at the single take, the third one of which is the final film. The fact that there are all of these exterior influences, with so many different things going on, any one of which could have caused the thing to fall flat on it's face, and yet somehow it remains seamless, is an incredible feat beyond any technical wizardry. Another part of what makes the film so immersive are the stellar performances by the cast. The four young men, 'Sonne' (Frederik Lau), 'Boxer' (Franz Rogowski), 'Blinker' (Burak Yigit) and 'Fuss' (Max Mauff), are all well-fleshed out and characterised. Each of them are distinctive and unique in their own ways, with different personalities and reactions to the predicaments they end up in. Some people will respond more positively to ones over the others, and vice versa, but I found them all to be a likeable charismatic band of misfits. At the centre though of course is the titular character in a superb lead performance from Laia Costa. I thought that she was absolutely empathetic and charming, projecting the energy of a free-spirited young woman whose life is at present unfulfilled, beautifully communicating to the audience that this is very much a multi-faced individual who despite having a determined streak and the spontaneity to do something wild, is also not without elements of fragility, carrying around with her the crushing sense of her hopes and expectations having been defeated by life. She does all of this with eloquence, not only with her multi-linguistic skills, her dialogue flawless despite English not being her first language, and the beauty of her expressiveness. Costa takes a challenging role and makes Victoria not only one of the best protagonists in recent film memory, but also makes her come across as something not on the written page, but as a real human being. That indicates a vivid and instinctive understanding not only the character but of how acting can operate when at its best. Also contributing greatly to the overall proceedings is the score by Nils Frahm. For years, the musician, who mixes electronic and classical music and has a unique approach to plying his craft as a pianist, held out film offers for "something real special." The Berlin composer not only brings his own stylings to the table, but he maintains the consistent flow and pace of the film. The score created by him and his team is the heartbeat of the picture, matching the mood and feeling of what is happening at that present time. As such, there are moments when the music comes to fore, and mixed with the cinematography and acting there are some truly transcendent moments which go beyond that of many other films, reaching higher levels and plateaus, so much so that although what is happening might be something fairly ordinary, all of these pieces together create a composite which makes it extraordinary. That to me is the true essence of art, and helping merge these things together subtly, editor Olivia Neergaard-Holm deserves a lot of credit. Although obviously the quality of each of these other elements is more in the forefront, behind all of this is required a smart editor who doesn't let them take away from one another. Finally, although to my shame I can't say I was aware of director Sebastian Schipper beforehand, I can certainly say that he now does indeed have my undivided attention. This is the work of a director of complete and supreme control, who understands not only the technical and logistical problems that need to be ironed out with a project which comes with such challenges, but also, like his lead actor, has a key understanding of the essence of storytelling. Wisely, the film's script was only twelve pages long and he gave the actors the opportunity to improvise their dialogue. As such, even though the film is masterfully choreographed, Schipper obviously mapping out with his DP all the necessary beats and whipping his actors up, preparing them all for the elaborate staging of the thing, it still feels authentic, almost akin to the great Italian neorealists or that of cinema verite. It's executed so well that, unlike a lot of other films with long takes that have me going "Wow, that was well-executed" or "Gee, that's creative lighting," I was rarely, if ever, consciously thinking about the craft, concerning myself primarily with the story.  Furthermore, the film also has a lot to say about life, dreams and relationships, with rich, dense thematic content that truly rings home. Victoria is a unique and wonderful film which does so much, hits so many beats. On the one hand, it's an escapist, almost romantic coming-of-age story, on another it's a straight genre film, dramatic crime thriller that is at parts wholly nerve-wracking and by all accounts it ends up being an essential work of high artistic value and transcendent quality. 

Now, as you can tell, I loved the film. That being said, there are a couple of things I have to flag up which I have to say aren't necessarily negative criticisms on my part but are elements that could detract from others' enjoyment that I have to take into account. I don't think that the so-called 'language barrier' is an issue, because for one thing if you have a problem with foreign-language films on principle for anything other than a learning disability you need to do yourself a favour and ingratiate yourself with the wider cultural stratosphere. If anything, it's a plus here, adding another level to the drama and intrigue, for if you are not a German speaker, you, like Victoria, have another degree of separation. I think that some people may find the whole one-shot thing a bit challenging to buy and not be able to disconnect it from notions of it being a technical gimmick as opposed to storytelling device. Also, at one-hundred and thirty-eight minutes, it's not like they've went and made a short, relatively accessible experiment that's about an hour-and-a-half long. With this running time, you do have to put yourself down and invest the time into watching this one. Don't get me wrong, it's totally worth it and a highly rewarding experience, but the fact that you have to do it could be off-putting for some. 

Regardless, with those things levelled and laid aside, Victoria is a masterpiece. To me it is a representation of what is good about cinema and art in general, how it can move you, how it can make you think, take what it has to say and carry it about with you. It's an excellent example of the experiment spirit being played out and executed with deft awareness and a keenness towards cinematic storytelling. It follows a series of patterns, no little action not having consequences for the bigger picture as a whole, the single take paralleling this sense of synchronicity and it all being interconnected. In every major department, from the performances to the cinematography to the editing, the musical compositions and the direction are all of a high standard, and the passion that these artists have invested into producing this work can be felt with the final product. I absolutely loved this film, and have seen many of the other great works that have come out this year, I think that this may very well be the best film released in the UK in 2016.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.7/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - In stitches (trolling people on my Facebook in between writing this has given me great amusement)

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