By Martin Kudláč.
The Locarno International Film Festival has a notorious sweet spot, Piazza Grande, one of the biggest squares in Switzerland where it is hosting open-air night screenings for over 8000 viewers. It is not just tourists´ landmark empillared with traditional arcades but also a programming one where a carefully curated selection of films receives ceremonial world premiere. One of such honorary unveiling happened to be dedicated to Hungarian 2D animated caper film Ruben Brandt, Collector, a feature-length debut by Slovenian-born Hungarian-based accomplished visual artist Milorad Krstic.
Krstic finished the film in the ripe age of 66 after a six-and-a-half-year run of hard work poured into the ambitious indie project while wearing several hats. Besides being on writing, directing, producing and editing duty, he served as the animation director while having responsibility for a camera and production design as well. Nevertheless, the amount of work took an army of 150 animation professionals to finish the project made with the support from the Hungarian National Fund. While the Locarno Film Festival programs predominantly more experimental oeuvres from the world cinema, it is no stranger to refreshing and progressive genre fare like Ruben Brandt, Collector. Another reason for programming may have been the fact that the film pays an original homage to art and cinema.
The eponymous main character, Ruben Brandt, a psychotherapist suffers from severe nightmares as a result of subliminal messaging he was exposed to as a child. In his wild dreams that rapidly deteriorate his quality of life, the figures from the most famous paintings of the Western art canon (the protagonist´s named is based on a combination of Rubens and Rembrandt), from Boticelli´s Venus to Warhol´s Elvis, descend to literally torture the confused psychotherapist. His latest client, compulsive kleptomaniac/cat burglar Mimi, suggests collecting, i.e. stealing, all the paintings haunting his dreams and as a way to cure his mental indisposition and avoiding plunging over the edge of insanity. According to the characters and Krstic himself, without a doubt, “art is the key to the troubles of the mind.”
Krstic sets the pulse racing from the first scene, which follows an adrenaline-rushing escape by a charming and cocky burglar Mimi pursued by a private detective Mike Kowalski. Ultimately, Mimi ends up in the retreat of the highly-esteemed therapist Ruben Brandt, a sort of art camp to cure criminal urgencies with unrestrained doses of art. As she joins the rag-tag group of felons-in-treatment, she becomes the originator of the plan to build a collection of priceless world heritage alarming secret services and gangsters alike.
Mingling the genres of crime, caper, heist, and noir, Krstic hits the familiar tropes and conventions albeit his agenda lies far from a roundabout of plagiarism and clichés. On the contrary, turning on a homage mode, the intertextual references stemming from cinema and art accumulate in wink-wink nudge-nudge fashion yet do not compromise the story nor the plot development. The writer-director-producer embeds the well-known genre emblems of burglars, private detective, secret agents, government agents, and gangsters into globe-trotting and genre-bending (psycho)therapeutic adventure hopscotching from MoMA to Tate to Hermitage to Louvre and beyond.
As an auteur animated film brought to life with hand-drawn animation (TVPaint), computer animation (Anime Studio), digital composing (After Effects), and 3D animation (Maya, Blender), the visual dimension wields the ultimate domination. Krstic renders the whole affair, not excluding the recreation of the notorious paintings themselves, in his own expressive brand merging pop-cubism and latent giddy surrealism. Oblong faces, wild anthropomorphic shapes, and an unnatural number of organs belong to a pandemonium of playful and bizarre anatomical deformities that do not cease to amaze, as the writer-director inhabits his animated world.
Ruben Brandt, Collector bundles together psychotherapy, art, and cinema brandishing intertextuality as the most natural tool, humor, along with irony, which turns out to be the most effective strategy to produce wider audience-appealing genre fare about high-art. From the slapstick of Venus´ physical attacks to a more subtle subversion of genre tropes and riffs on the pretentiousness of conceptual art among other intellectual gymnastics of jesting, Krstic maximizes his mastery, animation, through art direction littering each shot with sight gags and amusing visual puns. The quantity swells after each passing scene in tidal waves of references to Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Gauguin, van Gogh, Hopper, Magritte, de Chirico, Vélazquez, Manet, or Picasso thus bounding Ruben Brandt, Collector for a guaranteed second round of viewing.
Sony Classics acquired North America and Latin American right to Ruben Brandt, Collector planning to theatrically release the film with an Oscar-qualifying run in 2019.
Martin Kudláč is a freelance film journalist and independent scholar contributing regularly to a variety of outlets. He holds PhD in Aesthetics and is an external lecturer and researcher at The Institute of Literary and Art Communication at Constantine the Philosopher University at Nitra, Slovakia; a film industry reporter; and co-author of the upcoming book Images of the Hero in the Cultural Memory (Constantine the Philosopher University Press).