A word that is often used derogatorily for movies is “gimmicky”, suggesting that some technique used by the artists in creating the film lacks legitimacy in one way or another, and that the film is lesser than it might be because of this crass attempt to fool the audience. In truth, however, the term typically reveals disdain for the execution, or (as I often maintain) is just being used as a rationalization for why a movie is “bad”. (Remember, movie critics are, by-and-large, regular moviegoers who get paid to justify things that are matters of taste.)
I mention this because all tricks of art are “gimmicks” when they’re new or unusual. The CGI in (the original) Tron is a gimmick, for example, but CGI today really doesn’t count as much of a gimmick. Sound in cinema was called a gimmick back in the day, but say what you will about The Jazz Singer, it barely exists without sound.
Last year had some gimmicky movies, too: For example, did you know Boyhood took 12 years to make? That was kind of a running gag around here for a while since the producers wanted everyone to know Boyhood took 12 years to make, so we all knew that. Maybe that’s part of why Patricia Arquette won an Oscar.
Another gimmicky flick last year was Birdman, which was one of my favorites. The gimmick wasn’t the magical realism (though you could argue that was a gimmick) but the fact that, apart from the bookends, the entire film was done in a continuous-seeming shot, a la Hitchcock’s Rope, another film panned by critics for its gimmicky nature.
And that brings us to Victoria, an East German flick that was genuinely shot in one continuous take over a period of about 2 hours and 15 minutes.
I had some reservations going in. And those actually seemed to be borne out, because the first really dramatic point moment happens about 40 minutes into the film. (We learn something about Victoria’s back story that is critical to the rest of the film.) Up until then, what we have is Victoria (a young Spanish girl) dancing in a club, then on the way out, hooking up with four slightly thuggish guys, and hanging out on a roof drinking and smoking. She has to go open a café, so the guy goes with her, and we have a kind of nice, if odd, love story.
I was sweating bullets by this point because sometimes filmmakers, and critics who love this kind of crap, will do something like set a camera down in front of the Empire State Building for 8 hours and call it “art“.
But, in fact, the movie goes in an entirely different direction at that point, becoming (of all things) a heist picture.
This is actually a real movie. And it’s a good movie. But I think it’s safe to say that the one-take thing is a gimmick. I didn’t mention the other, perhaps obvious reason for a gimmick: To get attention. And I think it’s safe to say that the one-take gimmick got director Sebastian Schipper the attention he wanted, as he will be making a movie in the US next year.
This is where my hypocrisy comes out because while I won’t criticize him for doing something that was obviously successful, I do think the problem with “one take” is that you’re robbing yourself of many of the most important tools of moviemaking. And Victoria is successful due to the (admittedly impressive) ways Schipper (an actor in Run Lola Run, which may have had an influence) worked around those limitations. But not without cost.
Remember the 40 minute opener? Well, that was really necessary because he couldn’t use editing or montage to establish a relationship between Victoria and Sonne, her potential boyfriend. And Schipper really needed to establish Victoria’s character in order to explain her subsequent reactions to the heist. The 40 minutes is not unpleasant or anything, but it’s not exactly dense, either. How could it be? We’re listening to four guys talk over each other in slurry German and broken English—we may have had an easier time of it than actual Germans, who probably didn’t get subtitles. The dialogue is noticeably improvised, not for being unnatural but for being too natural, i.e., banal.
On the flipside, much like Boyhood, which manages to use the weight of the actual change of the actors over 12 years to add to its dramatic punch, after that initial calm, the next hour-and-a-half of screen time is intense and by the end, you really feel like you’ve gone through something. It’s more of a evolved dramatic experience than, say, Clerks, which sort of looks like it could’ve been filmed in 100 minutes. (And I’m not knocking Clerks, 20 years of camera technology have had an impact on the low budget film.)
Where the director had traditional movie facilities available to him, he used them to their fullest. In particular, the soundtrack is very effective. While there’s no time-compressing montage, he fades out the dialogue in places to a similar effect. He manages a half-dozen really excellent shots, which had to be challenging under the circumstances. I’d say the guy’s got some chops.
The acting is quite good. You sort of get the sense that he picked up these guys in Berlin and filmed them, though the movie is too well choreographed for that. We like the characters Sonne and Victoria (Frederick Lau and Laia Costa, respectively) as well as Sonne’s mates, Boxer, Blinker and Fuß. (That’s “Fuss”.)
The Boy and I both liked, we both found it interesting, and we both admired the technique in making it. We didn’t, however, think it was a great film, and further we feel that any film needs to stand on its own merits, not its technical impressiveness…or gimmickry.