Dreaming in a Single Take

Michael Philp

*Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead*

After recently seeing Watch The Sunset at the Revelation Film Festival, I found myself fascinated by the way it and other one take films (Victoria and Russian Ark) come across as dreamscapes. This is mostly because of their format, as their material couldn’t be more disparate – Ark is a 2002 Russian historical art-house film, Victoria is a 2015 German drama, and Sunset is a 2017 Australian drug-drama – and yet the single-take format gives them all a certain hazy, dream-like quality that unites them.

To be fair, there’s an entire school of film theory that sees movies as dream substitutes, but certain characteristics of single-take films exacerbate that comparison. Some of them are superficial – the constant movement of the camera can be used to hypnotic effect, and often mimics human vision – but others offer insight into cinema in general. If it’s true, for instance, that audiences tend to blink in time with scene breaks to minimise information loss, then it stands to reason that during a single-take film they will be blinking less. In other words, information overload is inherent in the format because there are no clear, predictable breaks.

Because of that reality, it’s easy to get lost in the films. Every moment flows into the next until it’s all just a blur and you’ve forgotten the steps it took to arrive at the destination. That’s particularly important for Victoria, where the main character falls in love, snorts cocaine, helps rob a bank, steals a baby, and watches all of her new friends either die or get arrested, all in the space of two real-time hours. When you write it out like that, the film undoubtedly reads closer to a dream than real life. I’ve omitted connective tissue, but only because it’s so unimportant that it was mostly left up to the actors to improvise. Sunset’s production echoes that sentiment, with the creators stating during a recent Q&A that it too was mostly improvised. This approach produces films that steadily move between set-pieces and rarely stop to look back.

Ark is a perfect example of that concept. Filmed in an enormous museum, it uses rooms as scenes to showcase particular time periods and ideas. Its narrator is implied to be a ghost and its characters whisper and float between conversations and visions, all of which results in a hypnotic drone of a movie. I don’t think any other film works this well at putting you to sleep, and I don’t mean that as an insult, it’s just the way the film is. The sum of Ark’s parts is so quietly rhythmic and relaxing that I admire anyone who doesn’t feel sleepy while watching it. For Victoria, only its vibrant dialogue – and the bank robbery – save it from that trap.

But that statement doesn’t really do Victoria justice. It implies that the film has no higher ambition than simply telling a good story, and that just isn’t true. Director Sebastian Schipper seeks more than just dialogue followed by a bank robbery; he wants to make a comment on youth and recklessness and to do that he needs to insert himself into a film whose ethos is passive observation. That might seem contradictory, but his decision to do it anyway, and the manner in which he does it, is what hammers home that these films are dreamscapes rather than dramas with a gimmick.

Which begs the question – couldn’t they have just filmed these movies  normally? That would’ve been easier, less dangerous, and given them more opportunity for creative license. Those arguments aren’t wrong, but they ignore the benefits of the format. When you film in a single-take, you produce a swirling vacuum of a movie, drawing your audience in. Victoria’s climax is devastating because the film locks the audience in its world for two straight hours and by the end of the movie, you feel just as disoriented as the title character. That’s the power of a single-take film – you forget that you’re watching a film in the same way you forget you’re dreaming, and that means the narrative can go to incredible places.

There is depth to the single-take format, but it takes a skilled director and crew to bring it out, more so than most film styles. The difficulties associated with its production are too great to make it more commonly used, but that just means the few films that have achieved the feat are gems. I highly recommend seeking out all three of the films I’ve mentioned, they are, for the most part, rewarding experiences, and together form a fascinating genre that I look forward to other filmmakers exploring in unique ways.

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

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