To talk about “Ruben Brandt, Collector” in terms of plot and acting would largely miss the point. For the movie, a heist film of sorts, is animated and it’s more about art, both the drawn variety it brings to the screen and the famous paintings that are at the center of the story than it is about creating a conventional thriller.
The feature debut of Budapest artist and animator Milorad Krstic, the picture begins with a focus on its title character, a therapist who uses art to unlock what is psychologically ailing his patients -- who, by design, all happen to be criminals with well-matched skills.
But Ruben has his own psychological issues. He’s tortured by horrible nightmares in which subjects in famous paintings come alive and attack him The first assault, in the movie’s opening comes from Diego Velazquez’s “Infanta Margarita Teresa” who bites him in the neck while they’re riding on a train. Ruben wakes up, shaken, but unsure what to do.
The solution to his dilemma is suggested by Mimi, an acrobatic kleptomaniac, who after having been told the only way to overcome her problem is to own it, convinces Ruben they should steal the paintings that haunt him.
So the team of patients, which includes a two-dimensional man, hit the world’s museums -- lifting, to pick one example, Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” from Musee d’ Orsay. But it’s not exactly “Olympia.” Krstic has added a black cat to the painting that leaps off the canvas and attacks Ruben.
The sort of alterations hold true for the other 11 paintings on the group’s target list -- from Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” to Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks" and Andy Warhol’s “Double Elvis,” both of which, being American paintings, attack Ruben with guns.
Nor does Krstic present the characters anymore realistically than the paintings. Rather, he uses a style that draws strongly from PIcasso-esque cubism with multiple eyes on the same side of faces, multiple faces, elongated bodies, etc.
And there may be more than a little art world criticism pervading the film, with the brand names that pop up around the work, particularly at a final pop art show in Japan skewering the corporatization of art.
Oh yeah, the thriller aspect of the movie comes when the owners of stolen art try to get the paintings back. First on the case, and the second lead, is American private investigator Mike Kowalski, whose sleuthing uncovers the clever backstory that underlies Ruben’s issues.
But as insurance companies raise the reward for the artwork into the millions, Kowalski’s joined by mobsters and other bounty hunter types in trying to catch the thieves. Which makes for an opportunity for some wild, only-in-animation chase scenes with gravity and human physical capability ignored in service of the sometimes violent action. With the violence, and a plethora of nudity, “Ruben Brandt, Collector” isn’t an animated movie for kids.
Even though its largely a Hungarian production, “Ruben Brandt, Collector” is, thankfully, in English, avoiding the need to read subtitles -- which could have made the offbeat picture even weirder.
For animation fans, “Ruben Brandt, Collector” is fun to watch for its visual style alone. For art lovers, like me, it’s kind of a hoot guessing what artwork will come next, catching Krstic’s take on the paintings and other art references -- keep an eye out for Marcel Duchamp's “Bicycle Wheel” And it’s oddball story isn’t bad either.