Ruben Brandt, Collector (2019, directed by Milorad Krstić. Hungary, in English [with English subtitles as needed], Color, 94 minutes) A psychotherapist has vividly horrific nightmares about masterpiece paintings. So what’s the cure? Well, steal them, of course, and hang them in his house!
This is the baseline premise for the artistically original animated film “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” a tale that weaves some of the most iconic paintings in the world into a story with flashes of style that are endlessly creative. Fragments of artists’ trademark styles get mashed into hundreds of distinct looking characters: Faces become those warped, drawn out shapes from Picasso’s cubism period; another character looks like a Francis Bacon subject who crossed paths with the titular figure in Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face”.
On top of the menagerie of artistic references in the characters are the 13 paintings that are eyed for Ruben's collection, all of which have had their iconic images stylized by director Milorad Krstić, himself an artist. The paintings, ranging from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus to Warhol’s Elvis I and II, are all innocent pieces full of beauty, even as Krstić morphs them into stylistic interpretations of others. Beauty fades as they depict some horrific episodes for Ruben Brandt, including, but not limited to, the characters of the Nighthawks initiating a shootout, Botticelli’s Venus becoming a sea monster, and the nude woman in Manet’s Olympia screaming in Ruben’s face.
How and why the nightmares occur from only these paintings is an interesting plot point that should be left for the viewer to discover.
The focus of the movie is on Ruben and his criminal clientele of patients that includes the seductively limber Mimi, a former security guard named Bye Bye Joe, a suave guy named Fernando, and a paper thin, three dimensional paint thief named Membrano Bruno to take the 13 works of art to end Ruben’s torture. But the heists themselves are not featured prominently in the film, mostly reduced to a sly montage of their international endeavors.
Surrounding all of this is Mimi’s gangster “boss” who wants in on the $100 million reward money to find the collector of the works, and a noir-ish subplot involving a detective trying to discover who the collector is and what works he is trying to collect. Then there’s the investigation into Ruben’s background, which explains the Cold War-influenced mark on his life. The investigation into Ruben and his “collector” status are the stuff that the great noir films of the ‘40s and ‘50s were about.
Most of these story points don’t actually take off until halfway through the movie. What precedes it are dynamic car/foot chases, a slew of Ruben’s beautifully macabre nightmares and a bit of exposition into our players. Ruben is most particular, a quiet little guy who gets featured in psychology journals and lives in a lavish residence next to a body of water. The criminals he counsels (into taking the art) have more personality than he, but he is the one who is most disturbed.
On the whole, the whole movie is brimming with personality, mostly coming from its beautiful animation, drawing inspiration from the great works of art that only lends itself to digital for more elaborate areas. It’s elaborately lush for a story that is equal parts gritty noir, high octane action movie and an honest postcard to art history. Alas, it does take a bit too long to get the story going into the heists, but I didn’t mind looking at it.
An interesting note is that the film is rated R, in part for nudity. Painted art works can have naked women in them and they hang around freely for on museum walls for all to witness. In “Ruben Brandt, Collector” a naked woman seen briefly in the film restricts who can see it. Hmm, OK. Seriously, there is nothing in this film that is too heavy for even younger audiences to experience. It’s a fun ride that is more intriguing than the CGI crap that floods theaters nowadays.