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With another contentious awards season behind us and a cookie-cutter blockbuster season ahead, what we need now is a palate cleanser. I’m talking about a cinematic vision so singular that it soars above the culture of comparison that defines our discourse on movies. Luckily, we have Ruben Brandt, Collector, an animated heist film/psychological drama that forges a unique style from the colors and shapes of art’s greatest masters, all without losing its popular touch.
The title character is a psychiatrist with an unusual specialty: He treats “artistic souls.” Really, he treats criminals using an artistic approach. There’s the two-dimensional thief whose eating disorder is impacting his ability to slide under doors; Ruben has him sculpt his cravings out of stone to process his dysfunction. The Cockney muscle-for-hire with a nasty habit of talking too much? He is tasked with emulating a statue because “statues don’t talk.” Ruben has his own issues, burdened by horrible visions of being attacked by priceless art. Like everything else in this visionary film, these scenes are drawn with both precision and imagination. It admirably recreates works by Hopper, Monet, Warhol, and others, and then draws well outside the lines to meld them with the characters’ inner lives.
Mimi, a professional thief whose raging kleptomania is surprisingly a hindrance to her work (she often steals the wrong item just because it catches her fancy), drops into Ruben’s troubled practice. Ruben himself becomes the next object of her desire, and she hatches a plan to cure him of his dreams by stealing the actual works that are haunting him. Meanwhile, a private investigator hired by one of her disgruntled bosses wrestles with his own obsessions while tracking the gang down.
It’s an exceedingly clever plot brought to brilliant life by first-time feature director Milorad Krstic. The characters’ faces are in two dimensions, often evoking cubism, but the world behind them is painstakingly rendered in 3D. Some characters have two faces or three eyes, while a cutaway will show a hyper-realistic close-up of a mosquito biting an arm and draining it of blood. It’s a beautiful film to simply look at, but Krstic is never content to just inspire gazing. The film’s use of style creates its own narrative, invoking philosophical debates about the intersection of art and life.
For those of us who value art of all kinds, Ruben Brandt, Collector is a cornucopia of pleasures. Art historians will likely have the most fun—I felt about a thousand references go over my head—but Krstic’s high-art aesthetic and subject matter are balanced by a genuine commitment to lowbrow devices. The film is bookended by genuinely thrilling chase sequences that would not be out of place in a Bond movie or the next Fast and Furious chapter. Krstic stages these scenes with as much verve and imagination as he does his art-school dream sequences.
Similarly, the film uses pop references to lighten the mood and reach out to the cheap seats, from a chase scene set to The Contours’ “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)” to a lounge version of “Oops!…I Did it Again” that is actually listenable. There is titillating nudity and unnerving violence. There are throwaway references to Blood, Sweat & Tears, and the 1986 comedy ¡Three Amigos! With this seamless melding of high and low art, Ruben Brandt, Collector is a visual feast for all audiences, and it makes a coherent, anti-elitist statement that is no less profound for its simplicity: Art literally is everywhere.
Ruben Brandt, Collector opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.