'Ruben Brandt, Collector' ('Ruben Brandt, a gyujto'): Film Review | Locarno 2018

An animated joyride.

Some of the greatest artworks of the Western canon inspired this audacious feature debut from Slovenian-born animator Milorad Krstic, which premiered on Locarno's Piazza Grande.

If you asked someone to come up with an animated fiction folly that incorporated elements of psychology, film history and half the artists indexed in H.W. Janson’s monumental reference tome, History of Art, chances are it would look something like Ruben Brandt, Collector (Ruben Brandt, a gyujto). This ingeniously imagined feature debut from Slovenian-born artist Milorad Krstic, produced in Hungary, tells the story of a disturbed shrink who has four of his patients steal priceless works of Western art — including canvases by Botticelli, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Hopper, Picasso and Warhol — in the hope that the characters from the paintings stop haunting his nightmares. Jumping from sophisticated art-history references to blockbuster action scenes a la Mission: Impossible while splicing in a reference or two to Spielberg and Hitchcock in between, this highbrow-lowbrow hybrid should interest boutique outlets that have experience distributing animated fare aimed at grownups. 

Ruben Brandt (voiced by Ivan Kamaras) is a renowned psychotherapist who suffers from bizarre nightmares in which he goes up against characters from world-famous paintings. The Infanta Margarita Teresa of Spain, for example, famously portrayed numerous times by Diego Velazquez, violently attacks Brandt on a train in the film’s arresting first scene. 

Like the rest of the feature, the opening sequence combines different drawing techniques to create a visually cacophonous collage effect, with the rails in the foreground drawn in comic book-style ligne claire, the stormy sky in oil colors worthy of Turner and the train, once it comes into view, and its entire route clearly mapped out with the aid of computer-based programming and CGI. (Krstic is credited with the overall design, while he shares animation-director credits with Marcell Laszlo.)

“Art is the key to the troubles of the mind,” according to Dr. Brandt — whose name recalls Netherlandish maestros Rubens and Rembrandt — so to try and rid him of his terrifying visions, a small group of his most colorful patients, led by acrobatic kleptomaniac Mimi (Gabriella Hamori), steal the works in question. Owning the paintings, the hope seems to be, will finally give Brandt some rest. This sends the thieving foursome on a trip around the world, where they steal from institutions such as the Louvre, the Tate, the Uffizi, MoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Since the general public is not aware of the identity of the criminals, they become collectively known as “the collector.” As private investigator Kowalski (Csaba “Kor” Marton) explains, the paintings are too famous to be resold on the black market, so it is likely a collector who is behind their disappearance. Krstic, who wrote the screenplay with Radmila Roczkov (also a producer), keeps things compact even as the script digs into the past of both Kowalski and Brandt and U.S. government agencies, East-Germany, psychological experiments and cinema slowly become a connected whole. 

Ruben Brandt’s pacing is amazingly fast for a film filled to the brim with art-history references and ideas borrowed from modern psychology and lovers of either field will have a, well, field day spotting the countless visual and verbal references. The beauty of the screenplay, however, is that audiences with next to no knowledge of either discipline won’t feel either excluded or overwhelmed as they’ll be too busy enjoying the heist part and figuring out the stories of Brandt and Kowalski. There is an early sequence that sets the tone as Mimi is followed through Paris after having stolen an artifact from a Cleopatra exhibition for six breathless minutes, with Krstic and his animators clearly enjoying the added liberty that animation gives him to choreograph the elaborate chase sequence. While clearly enamored of the many classical, painted works featured here, Ruben Brandt isn’t below making fun of more modern types of genres, such as performance art, used in a Tokyo-set sequence that’s funny and clever. 

That said, there are finally just a few elaborate action sequences — another memorable one starts with a nod to Duel and ends with an overpass, a helicopter and Mimi doing her darnedest to stay alive on an unfortunate stretch of Italian highway — and a lot of the 13 thefts are thrown together in a long montage sequence, so those expecting a good dozen elaborate heists might be disappointed. From a storytelling point of view, this makes sense, however, as otherwise the proceedings would become too episodic and repetitive, while the feature, like any film noir worth its salt, also wants to just indulge in the smoky, jaunty moods and atmosphere and delve a little into the various backstories.

Most of the character designs were inspired by Picasso's cubist period, so it’s not unusual for people to have more than one set of features on their face(s), while, on the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the thieves actually exists only as flat, 2D character. Clearly, realism is not part of the many art-history genres that the film tips its hat to, with the newbie director exploiting the liberty of the animated form to its fullest extent here as well. Identifying with the characters on an emotionally nuanced level might thus be a little harder — something like Loving Vincent or Waltz With Bashir this is not — but that’s not a major issue within the feature’s heavily genre-inspired context. 

Though not all the relationships are entirely clear — the thieves' relationship with Brandt, for example, remains somewhat vague — and there might be some minor issues that could become apparent on multiple viewings, this is first and foremost a rollicking and very imaginatively staged ride that’s enjoyable and different. And Tobor Cari’s lush orchestral score further helps viewers get swept up by the film's infectious momentum, as do some unexpectedly jazzy versions of famous pop songs.

For the record: The version that played the Piazza Grande in Locarno was the English-language version, delivered with verve by the mostly Hungarian voice cast. They also recorded the Hungarian-language version for the local release.

Production company: Ruben Brandt LLC
Cast: Ivan Kamaras, Csaba Marton, Gabriella Hamori, Katalin Dombi, Matt Devere, Henry Grant, Christian Nielson Buckhold
Director: Milorad Krstic
Screenplay: Milorad Krstic, Radmila Roczkov
Producers: Peter Miskolczi, Janos Kurdy-Feher, Milorad Krstic, Hermina Roczkov, Radmila Roczkov
Production designer: Milorad Krstic
Animation directors: Milorad Krstic, Marcell Laszlo 
Music: Tobor Cari
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Sales: Hungarian National Film Fund

In English
95 minutes