Film Review: Ruben Brandt, Collector

Animated Film Folds Art History Lessons Into Hitchcock-Style Thriller

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Ruben Brandt
“Happy little clouds!”
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Art comes to life, in more ways than one, in Hungarian director Milorad Krstic’s madly inspired animated caper Ruben Brandt, Collector.

That the film looks like a modern art gallery in motion is no mere coincidence. The story centers on the titular Dr. Ruben Brandt (Iván Kamarás), a world-famous psychotherapist who uses “art therapy” to heal his patients. Unbeknownst to the public, however, Dr. Brandt is plagued by nightmares in which figures from famous paintings attack him, biting at his flesh and clawing at his eyes. These disturbing visions have been with him since childhood. Despite his years of psychological training and mental health experience, Brandt is at a loss to stem these nightmares in his own brain.

One day Dr. Brandt’s starkly modern clinic in the French countryside is visited by fetching cat burglar Mimi (Gabriella Hámori). Mimi was recently hired by a Mafia kingpin to steal a priceless diamond. But Mimi’s compulsive kleptomania compelled her to snatch a lovely fan owned by Cleopatra instead. This resulted in a rousing car chase sequence through the streets of Paris (one of the film’s many moments in which traditional 2D animation is morphed into 3D for some dazzling action) with intrepid insurance detective Mike Kowalski (Csaba Márton) in hot pursuit. Worried about her professional career, Mimi turns to Ruben for help.

While under his care—alongside a mouthy bodyguard, a two-dimensional sneakthief and a three-eyed computer hacker—Mimi learns of Ruben’s secret fears. Wanting to help the good doc, she takes a page from his own therapy book: To conquer your fear, own it. When Mimi learns he’s been dreaming of being attacked by Édoard Manet’s
Olympia (and her accompanying cat), she and Ruben’s other skilled patients organize a heist to steal the painting from a nearby museum. Hanging the priceless painting up on his wall, Dr. Brandt is no longer assailed by vivid hallucinations of it. … There are, however, other great works of art in the world.

Realizing that he’s been haunted all his life by 13 particular works of art, both classical and modern, Dr. Brandt asks his four patients to join him on an epic art heist. With skill, panache and a certain sense of humor, the group starts boosting paintings by Botticelli, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Hopper, Picasso, Warhol and others from museums around the globe.

Still on the lookout for Mimi, and increasingly interested in the record-breaking thefts of the mysterious “Collector,” Detective Kowalski closes in on Brandt and his gang of art lovers-cum-thieves.

Krstic, who wrote, produced, directed and “designed” this entire film, renders most of the animation in a sharply defined
ligne claire style of animation that owes much of its surreal punch to Picasso’s Cubist period. (Characters are frequently blessed with multiple or asymmetrical facial features.) Countless other styles from Early Renaissance to Pop Art poke through the film’s winking imagery. Art history lovers will have approximately the same level of fun picking out this film’s “in jokes” as classic animation fans did dissecting Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The specificity of the animation is a wonder to behold. What looks loose and fantastical is actually filled with sharp detail. Despite its abstraction, a Lincoln Continental is as readily identifiable as the Neon Light Tunnel (aka Michael Hayden’s Sky’s the Limit) in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Clocking in at an animation-friendly 90 minutes,
Ruben Brandt, Collector inevitably gives short-shrift to what could have been deeper, more dramatic character arcs. (We learn precious little, for example, about Ruben’s larcenous compatriots.) It also leaves a number of storylines dangling and unresolved. (Kowalski uncovers some shocking secrets, but they have little impact on the overall plot.) But Ruben Brandt probably isn’t about character and story—any more than Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is about character and narrative. Sure, there are hints of both, but it’s really about the technique. And Krstic’s technique on this film is damn near impeccable. His imitation of classic action/caper/heist cinema (everything from Rififi to To Catch a Thief to The Pink Panther to The Thomas Crown Affair to Duel) is convincing—even in animated form. And his appreciation for art is unquestionable.

Like all great works of art, your appreciation of
Ruben Brandt, Collector may depend on what you bring to it. Watched as a casual, technically proficient imitation of a classic, Hitchcock-style move caper, Ruben Brandt, Collector is a breezy, stylish diversion. Push past the surface and dive deep into its multiple layers (as the characters do in the film’s zesty Tokyo-set climax), and Ruben Brandt, Collector is a Stendhal syndrome-inducing intellectual exercise perfectly suited to discerning fans of adult animation and adventurous art lovers alike.
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