Ruben Brandt, Collector

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  Ruben Brandt, Collector

A man falls into a troubled sleep while riding on a train. A master thief steals an ancient Egyptian fan, instead of a priceless diamond, from a museum and readily eludes the police. It is hard to see at first, but these two events are closely tied together and lead to international outrage for “Ruben Brandt, Collector.”

I was a little scared during the opening moments of “Ruben Brandt, Collector.” At first, it reminded me of Jan Svankmajer’s very bizarre, surreal horror stories – potential nightmare material for me. Then, I realized that first-time feature animation director (and writer, animator, editor, producer, cameraman, art director and production designer) has a unique style, both visually and in story telling. And, it is not scary at all.

The titular character, a therapist, is plagued with nightmares, all of which are about the great, unattainable and priceless paintings from the art world. He is also the psychiatric councilor to a group of expert thieves who want to help their troubled shrink. Their plan: steal all of the paintings of Ruben’s dreams and, once all are collected, the doctor’s nightmares will end.

That is a pretty straightforward plot and an interesting story, too. Where “Ruben Brandt, Collector” excels is the art direction and production design. Movies and art – pop, impressionistic, realist, abstract, art deco, etc. – are integral to the film, not because it is about art thieves but because the thieves, and every other character, is a work of art. Many acclaimed artists and masterpieces are referenced – Edgar Hooper’s classic “Nighthawks” and Andy Warhol’s “Double Elvis” are only two of the many. Pablo Picasso also has a strong influence on the tyro filmmaker. Film buffs will also love all of the movies referenced throughout.

I know that a cretin like me could not possibly get all the art works and artists referenced throughout “Ruben Brandt, Collector.” But, I appreciate it enough to see that the filmmaker not only knows his sources, he knows how to use art to create art. Is it animation of art or art in animation? Good question. I just know that I glimpsed a possible genius in the making and I am eager to see what Milorad Krstic does next. I give it an A-.

A train speeds along the tracks.  A snail crawls up over the wall of the trestle bridge it is fast approaching.
In one of its cars, a man spots a young girl, an infanta, hanging desperately outside his compartment’s window.  He reaches out to pull her in, but she begins to bite his arm, her sharp teeth drawing blood.  The man awakens from his nightmare in his huge, modern clinic where he treats others with art therapy, but thirteen masterpieces will continue to haunt the dreams of “Ruben Brandt, Collector.”

Slovenian cowriter (with Radmila Roczkov)/director Milorad Krstic makes a dazzling feature debut with an animation influenced by famous artists and filmmakers that works as both an international heist film (shades of “To Catch a Thief”) and a Freudian psychological thriller (shades of “Spellbound”).  This ultra stylized film is packed with visual pleasures, from characters spun from Picasso and Giuseppe Arcimboldo to the cars - Mercedes Benz, Citroen, Lincoln Continental and Corvette - Krstic’s turned Art Deco with decorative exterior exhaust pipes.

As Ruben Brandt (voice of Iván Kamarás) is experiencing his nightmare, we also witness the theft of Cleopatra’s fan from the Louvre.  The thief resembles Louise Brooks armed with incredible acrobatic skills and although there is a detective, Mike Kowalski (voice of Csaba Márton), on her tail, Mimi (voice of Gabriella Hámori) outruns and outraces him, even stopping to recreate the “Pulp Fiction” dance before ditching the fan into the Seine to avoid capture.  The only problem is, Mimi had been commissioned to steal a diamond, not the fan she took on a whim instead, and realizing she needs to focus, checks in to Brandt’s Adriatic clinic.

She’s not the only thief in Brandt’s care, and as they gain affection for their therapist, they resolve to help him overcome his nightmarish fears by meeting them head on.  And so the man who finds himself plunged from viewing Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to grappling underwater with “The Little Mermaid’s” Ursula, dueling with Warhol’s Double Elvis or being parachuted to Arles by Van Gogh’s postman achieves the media moniker of ‘The Collector’ as unfencable artworks are stolen from the Tate, Uffizi, Hermitage and Museum of Modern Art.  But it is Kowalski, a collector himself (of movie memoribilia), who tracks down the root of Brandt’s problem to the basement film lab of Brandt’s deceased father, a researcher of the subconcious for the C.I.A.

Krstic, who not only wrote and directed his film but designed and directed the animation, has produced a stunning visual feast unlike any other.  While the plot follows multiple threads featuring thieves, gangsters, shady underworld characters, the detective on their trail and the movie and artworld subjects who haunt Brandt’s dreams, it is easy enough to follow, but there is so much going on visually, the film is likely to encourage repeat viewings.  One cutaway to a mob boss and the chef preparing to serve him could be analyzed for far longer than it remains on screen.  Krstic peppers his landscapes with delightful visual gags, like the Escheresque background we see from a moving bus, Kowalski’s Alfred Hitchcock ice cubes or the name of a retail shop just before we encounter Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.  His stylish automobiles hug the road like sleek cats, some as sinister as those found in Grant Wood’s Death on Ridge Road.  And Krstic isn’t content to rest on his visual imagination, the film’s sound design and score adding immensely to the experience.

Film critics, myself included, missed the boat on building buzz for this, submitted for consideration for the 2019 Animation Oscar.  I sentence myself to forty lashes.  “Ruben Brandt, Collector” is an explosion of deftly curated imagination, a dazzling and hugely entertaining film.

Grade:  A-
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