Milorad Krstić’s animated feature Ruben Brandt: Collector, released in 2018, is an imaginative marvel. A Hungarian production, it took a reported 10 years for Krstić to complete. It is striking in appearance, wonderfully playful in its execution, and immersed in a dense and intertextual embracement of fine art.
The titular Ruben Brandt (Iván Kamarás) is an art therapist who is experiencing hallucinatory attacks against him by 13 famous paintings. Only he sees the figures emerge from the canvas to assault him, but his injuries are distressingly real. With the aim of curing his affliction, four of his patients – each one a master thief – embark on a daring plan: steal all 13 paintings in a series of art heists to ensure they are never able to attack Ruben again.
Ruben Brandt is an absolutely astounding piece of work. Krstić embraces the surreal premise of the film, and gives it lively visuals to match. A blend of painted art and CGI, it leans heavily on Picasso with a touch of Klimt, a dose of dada, and a stream-of-consciousness fluidity that brings to mind Peter Chung’s legendary Aeon Flux. Classical paintings form not only the basis of the plot but visual inspiration, and classic film enthusiasts will find much of the work inspired by cinema as well. This is a rich and rewarding film, that gives out as much as the viewer wants to put into watching it. I have no doubt there are references and pastiches that I missed completely – this is clearly a film that will reward multiple viewings.
And while it is deliberately strange, it also knows how to assemble a heist movie. There are plane trips abound, with characters moving from Paris to Venice, Tokyo to Rome, always at a slick pace and never bothering for the audience to pause or linger too long on any one location. The action sequences are a highlight: street and car chases, shoot-outs, and punch-ups abound, each framed and captured as effectively as the best live-action thrillers. There is a strong sense of play at work; nothing happens for very long before its absurdity makes it impossible to treat seriously. It works as heist movie, as comedy, as psychological thriller, and as a strange mystery.
The design work is astounding, with a superb variety in the character designs. Some simply look like an abstract painting. Others have three or more eyes, or strange bifurcated heads. One of the art thieves is literally two-dimensional. It is joyfully inventive and utterly strange.
This is a film for lovers of both cinema and art. It embraces Van Gogh, Warhol, Velázquez, Gauguin, and others. It plays with these elements and it respects them as well. More than that, it understands what the best paintings can do. One doesn’t just view them, one allows them to find a place in the mind. They emotionally affect us. They claw their way into our memories. Ruben Brandt simply pushes their grip a little further. This may be whimsy, but there is cleverness abound holding it all together.
A brief note for Australian readers. This film has been released on DVD only here by Pinnacle Films, and with an English dub replacing the original Hungarian. While most viewers understandably may prefer the original director’s version, it is a solid enough adaptation that still preserves Krstić’s wonderful visuals.