Sunday, January 31, 2016

Victoria


Last year, I heard tell of a heist movie filmed in one take. Upon immediately hearing this pitch, the exercise in question rocketed to the top of my anticipated films list. I had been previously quite a fan of the superheroic long takes, buoyed by the audacity and skill required to pull them off. The famous ones, Scorsese's Goodfellas, Anderson's Boogie Nights, Altman's The Player, all rattled in my skull, never escaping my admiration. How could a one take heist film go wrong, I wondered?

I write this two days after finally seeing Victoria. I write this after suffering through the film, enduring its banality and tedium. I write this a day after having a moderately heated debate with a friend, a cinephile, who quite liked the film. I write this trying to work out my complicated feelings about this valiant and daring film.

First, a word of appreciation and awe for the cinematographer and camera man, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who lugged the camera for over two hours without a single break. He kept up with the action, with nary a misstep, which in of itself, something to be lauded. Even with the possibility of anything and everything going wrong, Grøvlen and director Sebastian Schipper manage to maintain a slightly above average quality of cinematography. The film looks good enough for what it is.

Yet, this compliment is loaded with my inevitable criticism. The single take, while an impressive technical feat, is almost the sum total of the film. Without the gimmick of the single take, this movie would languish in obscurity, another Eurocrime thriller biting the buzz that Run, Lola, Run generated all those years ago.

And it is a gimmick, no matter how the director and the marketing argue otherwise. If the director's intentions were to have form meet content, then his reach did not exceed his grasp. Ideally, the film's single take gimmick is meant to evoke the unblinking length of time that Victoria goes on, a single sleepless night that ends in disaster. The lack of cuts is meant to mimic real time, the descent from the beginning's order into chaos, without ever taking a break. Some might argue, then, that the film succeeds. One of my friends has described the film as "hypnotic" in that they were mesmerized by the chain of poor decisions made by the cast, leading to catastrophe. Obviously, I disagree, and in order to demonstrate why, I must do the unpalatable: defend Iñárritu's Birdman.

My relationship with Iñárritu is fraught, at the best of times. Early in 2015, I wrote about my complex feelings about Birdman. Allow me to sum up my conclusion by quoting a relevant sentence or three:
If only Baudrillard had seen Birdman, he could have written about the monotony and sameness of the film, thanks to the long-take, the single continuous flow. All this postmodern theorizing makes it sound like I hated the film; I didn't. I just felt this immense apathy for it, an holistic apathy that transcended any affect on the spectrum of like or dislike.
What didn't work in Birdman was not its reliance on the long take, but its using conventional film grammar inside the long take. Almost by necessity, the long take should have its own grammar. The shot, reverse shot of conventional grammar that is paradigmatic for almost all conversations on film, wastes valuable time in a long take, as the camera has to physically move around the actors instead of efficiently cutting back and forth. This tedious length of time dilates to unfathomable tedium when the entire film deploys this grammar. Even worse are the "dissolves" that Birdman uses to indicate an increased passage of time, say from day to night. The medium of film is already completely awkward when denoting the passage of time; there exists few strategies to show the collapse of time: the dissolve, showing a clock, speeding up the film, etc. The long take and the ellipsis of time should be mutually exclusive, yet Birdman does this anyway, thus calling attention to itself, exhausting the feeling of organic.

Yet, what does work in Birdman is intimately related to its content. The single take, with its frenetic movement, matches the film's interest in the theatrical. There are no cuts in theatre—only the curtain. Birdman manages to very effectively capture the sense of panic and locomotion of a troupe putting on a play: the running back and forth, the endless halls, the hysteria of getting it exactly right. The long take—at least with regards to emulating the backstage hijinks of theatre—is successful here. Iñárritu is mostly a shallow showman, directing our attention with great effort to an ornately decorated but ultimately empty box. While I thought Birdman was, on the whole, hollow, Iñárritu did manage to use the film's form to convey an important affect that was thematically appropriate... perhaps the highest compliment I can give the movie.

The same problems persists with Victoria. This is an elaborate song-and-dance but its routine eventually tells us nothing interesting or compelling about its characters. Its gimmick does nothing for the content. It's braggadocio. Unlike Iñárritu, Schipper does not meld form with content.


Victoria would work with cuts. Full stop. The single take does not provide the audience with any privileged perspective on the film's narrative that cuts wouldn't also accomplish. In fact, the film would be greatly improved with cuts, but I will return to this momentarily. Victoria's story—lonely girl is seduced into being an accomplice for a crime because of her linguistic, geographic, and social isolation—has nothing to do with long take or cuts. If we agree that the film's story and thematics would not be altered with cuts, then we must agree that the long take is nothing more than gimmick. Technically impressive, yes, but gimmick nonetheless.

If only though, Victoria was more than its gimmick. Superficially, the film sounds great. I went into this experience expecting to enjoy. Based on feedback from friends and trusted critics, I thought I would at least like my time with the movie. And in many ways, I did like the story. The fabula of the movie is not the problem; it is the syuzhet that stymied me, that frustrated me. 

An element of Victoria that succeeds is the titular Victoria herself. Tremendously well cast, Laia Costa fills her thin character with heart and soul, making her instantly likeable and more importantly, attainable. It is her approachability and warmth that make her a "target" if you will for the four young Germans to inadvertently exploit. She is beautiful, but never in an off-putting or distancing way. Neither is she plain or frumpy. It is her unassuming prettiness that leads to her complicity in the crime and then eventually, her successful escape from the police. Costa does remarkably well considering the presumably exhausting circumstances of filming. Her Victoria is always sad and yearning without careening into an unappealing dejection. I hesitate to continue describing her physical attributes as I worry about the optics vis-a-vis my male gaze, but on the other hand, her performance is very physical and her prettiness serves the final section of the plot. It is her prettiness and warmth that also serves the best moment in the film and the most successful element of the story.

Her flirtation with Sonne, the young German that ropes her into the crime, takes up the first hour of the film. This is, without question, the best part of Victoria. I would compare it favourably with Linklater's Before Sunset trilogy, if I had seen it. There's a sensation of freedom and potentiality with the first 45 effervescent minutes as the two leads get to know each other.

The film's best moment arrives just around the one hour mark when the night is "winding down" (it's not; it's about to blow up) and Sonne watches Victoria play the piano in the cafe where she works. The one shot means that the camera can't really disguise that she's not playing the piano so it floats around her, showing her intense concentration. When she finishes, Costa's face goes through a stunning array of emotions: the elation from playing the piece and the descent into reality as she remembers that her time at the conservatory is finished. Sonne quickly picks up on her emotional state, a credit to his sex in this case, and draws out Victoria's circumstances: completely lonely, linguistically isolated, and adrift with regards to future plans. 

This scene works so well thanks to the two actor's focused performance and the relative subtlety that the film insists on her loneliness. (In the first scene of the film, this loneliness is demonstrated much more effectively, when she attempts to buy a drink for the bartender at the club.) The audience has thus been primed for the last hour to accept her decision to accompany the Germans on their heist.


Once the "action" begins, the film completely falters, falling on its face with endless scenes that beg for a cut and actors who are less than capable with improvisation. While I thought Costa and the actor who plays Sonne were great, the others were less than satisfactory. The two other German characters are far too thin for the actors to successfully and convincingly improvise. I am not well versed in acting theory, yet I believe that the best type of improv is the kind when the actor understands the character so well that they can react organically as the character. If the character is nothing more than an empty vessel, the actors have no raw material to improvise from. In Victoria, the actors err on the side of repeating inanities to avoid "dead air."

The consequences of a single take include having to fill in the empty space between cinematic moments, a space usually excised by dint of a cut. For example, getting into a car, putting on a seatbelt, opening a door, driving long stretches—all these activities would have been cut had the movie not insisted on its gimmick. In the absence of cuts, the actors must either talk or move around to keep the audience's attention. However, as I said, the characters are shallow, meaning the actors simply repeat themselves. They repeat shallow phrases that provide the audience with no new information about the characters. I began to dread when the characters were forced to speak because I just didn't want to hear them say the same thing they had said a hundred times before. Their reactions felt so stilted and so... forced, the opposite effect intended by the long take.

Consider the scene in which Victoria takes a wrong turn. Within the world of the film, this makes sense, as she's panicking, confused, and sleep deprived. The passengers scream at her to take this turn or that turn. They all calm down once they're back on the path. Outside the film's constructed world, I suspect Costa did take a wrong turn, and the cast is attempting to react as their characters. However, because of this real wrong turn, the pacing of this scene is completely off. With cuts, this mistake could have increased suspense. Without cuts, the time it takes for Costa to get back on the path is three beats too long. The scene drags interminably. 

Really, the whole movie drags interminably. With cuts, this could have been an effective 90 minute thriller. Without cuts, it's over two hours of people walking around, shouting at each other, repeating those shouts endlessly. 

I hated my experience with Victoria perhaps because of my expectations, perhaps because of the audacity of the gimmick and its subsequent failure. I really wanted to love this movie, but I found it a great chore. There are certainly elements of the film that I quite like (the piano scene, Costa's performance) but the awful bloat, boring improv, and ultimate hollowness of the story vastly outweigh any compliments I can pay. 


I worry about "contrarian" opinions sometimes, especially on Letterboxd.com. There's always a famous, well regarded film that some asshole wants to tear down, often with a sneer. The reviewer writes a long diatribe about the film's failings and points at the audience's complicity in the success of the film, as if the masses are too fucking stupid to understand how bad said movie is. I worry about behaviour like this because I sometimes do it. In fact, I often do it. The older I get, the more self-reflective I think I'm getting and I'm worried that I'll end up some asshole that shits all over popular culture just for the pleasure of irritating those that enjoy it. 

Think about this review on Letterboxd that I read the other morning. The author begins their review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens with the caveat that they weren't going to write a review "out of respect" for the masses. But then they write this, completely overturning whatever lip service they've just paid:
Seeing a Star Wars film in the cinema was a strange experience for me and possibly the only time that I’ve felt like a complete movie outsider. I covertly glanced at some of the filmgoers as The Force Awakens unfolded before their eyes. A man sat open-mouthed on the edge of his seat, an aged fanboy tutted at his restless son, the woman next to me even spontaneously burst into tears of joy at about the midway point. What is it that these people see in this film? I thought to myself as I struggled to keep my eyes open during another lengthy fight sequence.
I mean, this is an asshole thing to say. I didn't even like the movie enough to feel defensive for these fans; my loathing of the Star Wars brand is well documented. But I hope that I have not infantilized and mocked the fans for their love of the brand. I hope that I will never say anything as relentlessly cynical as this jab at the woman who wept with pleasure for a film. 

My friend (the one I had a moderately heated debate with over Victoria) helpfully suggested the insidious reason for this snobbery. He reminded me that there exists a culture of irony so deeply embedded within us that we are too embarrassed to be caught enjoying something so fully. Notice that there's a sense of embarrassment in this reviewer's reaction at seeing others' open display of emotion. I'll quote myself from my essay on Transformers: Age of Extinction:
we have irony as our dominant mode, meaning that non-ironic objets d'art are perceived as "corny," "hokey," and "cheesy." We regard this objects with suspicion. An excess of "real" emotion makes viewers uncomfortable. Thus, we shield emotions with a patina of irony, a measure of self-protection, as contact with "real" emotions is unbearable.
I write all this as an attempt at self-reflection, at attempt at praxis. I need to be better with my participation in mass culture. Here I sit in my bourgeois ivory tower, sneering down at everybody else, but I hypocritically call out others for their implicit classism. I hated Victoria but I do not begrudge those that love the movie.

One of my strategies for critical thinking about cultural objects is to read diametrically opposed reviews. For example, with Victoria, I read a bunch of exuberantly positive evaluations to see what the "other side" has to say. I want to be persuaded, I want to understand how somebody could conclude with the opposite opinion. Sometimes I am convinced by an articulate, well-reasoned, considered opinion, sometimes I am not (as with the case of Victoria). However, I end up reading these spiteful contrarian reviews like the one above in anger. These writers on Letterboxd seem to take some pleasure in watching a film they know they'll hate just so they can feel superior by taking it apart. Again, I realize that I have done this before. I want to be a better person. In this case, then, reading that above review is instructive, as it makes me reflect on my behaviour and my ideals.

With Victoria, I don't write this negative review to be a contrarian. I explicitly acknowledged my appreciation of what works in the film. I wanted to like it, but struggled to apprehend what others found so compelling.

Praxis is a process that includes self-reflection and eventual action. Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, writes of the necessity of dialogue (Socratic and otherwise) linked with action aimed at transforming the structures that oppress. Informed dialogue and focused action by students can be immensely impactful. In the microcosm, the student can consider their previous actions, reflect and analyse on the repercussions of those actions, and then take this new information into account in subsequent activity.

I hope that this review and ending tangent keep haunting me, reminding me that there's a difference between not connecting with a cultural object and making sweeping condescending generalizations about audiences. 

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