A young woman meets four guys in a nightclub. She hangs out with them for a bit, and then winds up helping them commit a bank robbery. That's the outline of the German movie Victoria, but it doesn't begin to tell the whole story.
It's impossible to appreciate director Sebastian Schipper's Victoria without putting the movie into a film context.
To begin with, Schipper shot his 138-minute movie in a single take. That means there are no cuts as the movie transitions from one situation to the next. The lack of these customary cuts between shots may seem like a small thing, but -- in truth -- it has a major influence on the movie's impact.
A single-cut movie requires us to stay with it, even in moments when it lags. The nearly imperceptible -- but still felt presence -- of edited spaces between shots gives the mind tiny periods of rest and adjustment that a single-shot movie eliminates.
Conventionally edited movies also do some of the work for us, directing our attention, creating emphasis and even manufacturing a performance.
As a result, viewing a single-shot movie -- made possible by the widespread use of digital photography rather than film -- can be taxing for viewers, not to mention for the actors and crew.
There are no breaks. Everything must be carefully planned. There can be no do-overs without starting from the beginning.
For those who stick it out, the resultant film can feel inescapable. That fits the subject, an early-morning foray into an increasingly chaotic situation.
Schipper focuses on Victoria (Laia Costa), a Spanish woman living in Berlin. Victoria works in a coffee shop, and scratches out a meager living, but she's about to be caught up in a night she'll never forget.
At a club, where she downs shots of whiskey and dances with abandon, Victoria meets four men who are attracted to her. Are these guys out for a night of fun or are they dangerous?
Victoria tags along with her four new friends in a movie that, by necessity of its single take, occurs in real time.
Why Victoria decides to join these four guys remains a bit of a mystery, a subject for speculation rather than definitive conclusions. This rightly can be regarded as a weakness in a film that takes its time reaching the twist that energizes its plot.
One of the four men owes a favor to a gangster. The gangster wants this quartet of night owls to rob a bank. When one of the four gets too drunk to participate, Victoria is drawn into the scheme as driver of the getaway car.
Despite the bank robbery, it helps to think of Victoria as an anti-caper movie, a look at how certain kinds of characters find themselves snared in unplanned events that take on a life of their own.
Characters in such situations surrender much of their autonomy. They are no longer actors, but reactors.
Schipper's actors rise to the challenge he sets for them.
Costa creates a character who's by turns, giggly, serious and adventurous.
Of the four men, two actors stand out. Frederick Lau portrays Sonne. As the man who's most attracted to Victoria, Sonne tries to assume the role of protector. Franz Rogowski portrays Boxer, the young thug whose debt to a gangster sets the plot in motion.
Film buffs no doubt will recognize similarities in tone to Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960), which had a ragtag feeling of rebelliousness about it, as well as an air of improvisation.
That's a fair comparison.
But as it progresses, Schipper's film acquires its own heightened dizziness, a purposeful lack of balance that's hinted at in the early going when Victoria steals beer from a convenience store, and participates in a roof-top conversation with her four new companions.
Victoria doesn't speak German, so her dialogue is delivered in English. The Germans speak English, but shift in and out of German. And, yes, this, too, adds to the feeling of disorientation.
I suppose that's the point: Victoria is a movie of and about disorientation, which is why it is not entirely governed by conventional logic.
I'm not saying that Victoria is perfect. It takes an awfully long time (about an hour) to get to the robbery. The movie's 138-minute length can wear on you. There also are choices (at one point a baby is put into harm's way) that create more discomfort than is necessary, a feeling that's abetted by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen's relentless hand-held camera.
Still, Schipper has taken a big risk, and it's worth taking the risk with him. Set in the early morning hours of what has been a long Berlin night, this one leaves you feeling as woozy as if you, too, had been part of a crazy, misguided and dangerous stunt.