Victory for Victoria

Movie Review Blog

Victoria is one of the most impressive pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen, and it won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for Cinematography at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. The entire film is one continuous, 134-minute-long shot. Movies like Birdman have tried to create this single-shot effect as well, but they used visual tricks to simulate one shot. The camera follows the characters into elevators and cars, running down sidewalks and dancing in nightclubs, all without ever revealing its presence to the viewer. Victoria owes a lot to its realistic cinematography, which resists the male gaze that would take away power from its compelling female protagonist.

The movie is about a girl from Madrid, named Victoria, who has recently moved to Berlin. She meets a group of four local guys outside of a nightclub who want to show her the city. You could say that the genre is crime thriller, but it dismisses a lot of the conventions associated with that genre. There are no quick cuts or stylized editing, it uses handheld camera and natural lighting, and the dialogue is completely contrary to the streamlined, often unrealistic style typical of the genre. The dialogue is mostly improvised, switching between German and English. The first act involves nothing of the main plot event, a bank heist gone wrong. It is very dialogue-heavy and establishes characters and their relationships. Personally, I love this style of filmmaking, though I can see where others might get impatient with its length and lack of focus. The chain of events leading to the climax is implausible, but I was so drawn in already that it didn’t much matter to me. At over two hours, the film could be too much to sit through, but I thought the pacing went well with the length. It starts slow and easy to watch, but when the main plot begins, the adrenaline kicks in fast.

I saw the film at St. Anthony Main Theatre as part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. My ticket was $6, half-price because I am a student. The box office was moved away from its normal location next to the concessions stand, and they had people waiting in line in a separate area, so I did not feel encouraged to buy food or drinks. The audience was mostly older adults, as I have found to be the case at most of the festival screenings. It was a full house, but once the film started no one said a word. People laughed at the frequent funny parts in the first parts of the film, but other than that, it was silent until the credits rolled and the audience burst into applause. The tension during the film was palpable and made the experience much better at the theater than it would have been at home. I was glad that I went alone, because I usually dislike talking about a movie (or anything else) right after watching it, and with Victoria I definitely wanted extra time to process it. An added bonus to seeing it in a theater was that the cinematographer (Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) attended the screening. He didn’t do a Q&A that night, but it was still super cool to see the man behind that amazing camerawork.

The film was enjoyable on its own, but it also stands up well to feminist critique. At the beginning, the guys make jokes about Sonne getting the girl. It may have been Sonne’s original intention to hook up with Victoria, but aside from some flirting, which she reciprocates, he treats her more like a friend than a potential sexual conquest. He has a real interest in showing her the side of the city that “real Berliners” see; it’s not just a scheme to get in her pants. They flirt throughout the movie, but it isn’t until close to the end of the film that they actually kiss. Sonne had plenty of opportunities to kiss her previously, but didn’t, and the building of tension and of their relationship makes their eventual romance so much more satisfying. It is clear that the characters are first and foremost individuals with distinct personalities and do not exist only to be love interests.

In some ways, Victoria fits Peterson’s model of the Cool Girl almost perfectly. She is “one of the guys,” running around with Sonne and his friends doing spontaneous things in the early hours of the morning. She follows them, never nagging, into minorly (and eventually majorly) illegal situations that could lead to trouble. However, she does not follow blindly. Peterson quotes Gone Girl: “Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.” This is not Victoria. The trailer shows a clip of Victoria calling out Sonne, saying (somewhat teasingly), “You touched my ass! Say sorry!” Sonne mumbles an apology, then more sincerely apologizes when Victoria says, “With heart!” She is self-assured and has a personality that cannot be overpowered or suppressed, but this does not make her into the no-fun, “angry feminist” type that the Cool Girl rejects.

Victoria gets upset, she panics, but these emotional reactions are separated from her being a woman, and the men are no less sensitive or expressive. All the characters celebrate without reservation, show genuine care and concern for each other, and at times act deliriously silly. Emotionality in this film is not gendered female, nor is it shown as weakness. These characters are not the typical heroes of crime thrillers, who maintain a cool attitude in stressful situations and run without hesitation toward danger.

Laia Costa is wonderful as Victoria, and she gives the character a depth of personality that makes her appearance less important. Of course, she is still beautiful, but not in the Cool Girl fashion of idealized beauty presented as “effortless and natural,” as Peterson says. There are no hair and makeup fixes between takes; her appearance is verifiably natural. Blemishes on her skin are visible, but are not a concern of the camera or viewer and do not reflect on her character at all (the postfeminist expectations of flawless skin and coiffed hair are not a requirement of femininity here). The camera is unconcerned with making its subjects look attractive, and it never shies away when faces get sweaty or mascara runs. One scene near the end of the film captures Victoria in tears, her face blotchy, nose running, saliva bubbling. I thought the crying scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color were effective using the same persistent camera, filming blubbering, tear-streaked faces in almost extreme close-up shots. Victoria conveys the intensity of emotion even better, because there are no cuts that reposition the viewer and allow for distancing.

Mulvey writes:

The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation….For a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no-man’s-land outside its own time and space. (5)

It is true that I wasn’t looking for “to-be-looked-at-ness” (it was impossible to think about anything else while watching this movie), but as I remember, there were none of these moments. I think the film requires the absence of the male gaze for its success, as it depends on complete narrative absorption to keep its momentum. The film resists the male gaze with its adherence to style, maintaining a striking realism throughout. It is a perfect example of how form creates meaning. The single-take format and the gritty realism facilitate a connection with Victoria and to some degree the other characters that is natural and effortless.

Victoria is a female protagonist that everyone will want to watch, male, female, or otherwise. She is not objectified for a male audience, nor is she gendered to target female attention, like female characters in “chick flicks” often are. The distance between the viewer and the screen disappears along with the image of the woman as spectacle. Mulvey describes the position of the male protagonist in terms of screen image and in contrast with female characters:

In contrast to woman as icon, the active male figure…demands a three-dimensional space….He is a figure in a landscape. Here the function of film is to reproduce as accurately as possible the so-called natural conditions of human perception. Camera technology (as exemplified by deep focus in particular) and camera movements (determined by the action of the protagonist), combined with invisible editing (demanded by realism) all tend to blur the limits of screen space. The male protagonist is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action. (5-6)

Using the very same cinematic techniques that Mulvey specifies, Victoria gives the power of the look, and the narrative privileges that come with it, to a female protagonist. The successful transference of the look in Victoria makes me wonder if female protagonists are so outnumbered by males because the way women are filmed and allowed to control space automatically makes the character less compelling.

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