‘Ruben Brandt, Collector’ Is Art Movie Therapy

Milorad Krstic’s new animated feature unravels the mistakes of most films about art or artists, and amplifies the good parts. Like a good psychiatrist.

by Travis Diehl
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Feb 14 2019, 5:51pm

Imagine you’ve broken into the museum at night. You’ve danced over the laser beams, evaded the guards, and you’re about to smash and grab the priceless diamond you came for—but then you notice a painting: an alluring profile of Cleopatra rendered on an unfurled paper fan. Mimi, our cat-suited antihero (voiced by Gabriella Hámori), faces this dilemma early in Ruben Brandt, Collector, a new animated feature film directed by Milorad Krstic, opening Friday. Krstic is a feverish kind of art lover, and his film takes on the same problem that haunts his characters: Can you ever possess a work of art, in the way that art possesses you?

Indeed, it’s a dire matter of mental health for one Ruben Brandt (Iván Kamarás), renowned psychiatrist, who is cruelly pursued by characters from great works of art: the girl from Las Meninas by Velázquez, the gunslingers from Warhol’s Double Elvis. By way of a cure, Mimi and the squad of pathological thieves that are Ruben’s patients take on “one last job,” a global crime spree across the world’s great museums to collect the thirteen artworks tormenting their shrink. Just for fun, she also takes the fan.

Ruben Brandt, Collector
A still from 'Ruben Brandt, Collector.' Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The pictures on Ruben’s hit list are too famous, too grand, to ever see the market—a Botticelli, a Rembrandt, a Van Gogh—and too recognizable to sell. But Ruben doesn’t care about that. He is a true collector. It’s rare for a mass-market film to neither dumb art down ( Basquiat, Pollock) nor settle for low-blow farce (looking at you, Velvet Buzzsaw), and still avoid becoming a turgid, overly arty biopic ( Munch is great but not for everyone). Ruben Brandt, Collector is such a rare film.

Watching the film, you are a collector too—an obsessed compiler of references to great works of art. Ruben’s world is as rich as a tour of the Louvre, replete with weird details—like the little slug of hand soap coming out of the pump in a train's restroom, or the camera pushing past a Bavarian couple’s picnic; the ice cubes in the character’s cocktails look like Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a film you could watch twice: the first time as usual, and the second to focus on the vicious, slapstick rhythm of art-historical nods spread over the backgrounds like crows on an Impressionist wheat field. The film follows in a syrupy stream of consciousness from one scene to the next—stunningly constituted of a combination of cel animation and CGI backgrounds that resembles Fortnite as much as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—all glossed with a layer of citations to films, to music, and especially to paintings.

Ruben Brandt, Collector
A still from 'Ruben Brandt, Collector.' Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

It’s true that the world Ruben and his cadre caper through looks like ours. The difference is the exhilarating sense that everyone and everything in the film exists for the sole purpose of floating into the positions of a Renaissance tableau. It’s a world of art that is art itself—cinema composed of static works—in a way that feels both neatly framed and infinite. The inhabitants, accordingly, obey a plastic kind of physics that allows them to execute acrobatic stunts one minute, pass for paintings and statues another. One of the thieves, for example, is two-dimensional, a gag that doesn't get old (his father was “normal,” his mother was “a dot”). Pretty much everyone walks around with a mild case of synthetic cubism, blinking their three or more eyes, watching from multiple faces, wearing two ties or several hats. This general hallucinatory physiology suggests the fraught inner life of the titular Doctor. In Ruben Brandt, Collector, art criticism comes in the form of the literal bloody and trippy fights Ruben has with the subjects of the thirteen masterpieces, whether in his dreams or in waking reveries. Ruben always loses.

The film’s view of art therapy is admittedly a little goofy. In one scene, for instance, Ruben tells his new patient that she should “trust the brush”—that the brush doesn’t lie—but let’s be honest, a movie that accurately depicted the minutiae of the artistic process would be unwatchable. Ditto your average real-life therapy session. And so Ruben Brandt escapes the gravity of those situations into the bars, rooftops, and back alleys of a hackneyed globetrotting heist movie. But you won’t care about that. You’re not here for the many chases or the occasional striptease. You’re not here to crack the case. You’re here because for some reason the walls, ceiling, and floor of Dr. Brandt’s office are glass tanks full of bruise-hued fish the size of whales. They float in front of the camera, under his desk, in a bewitching, slow motion hallucination. So do like the good Dr. and his gang: ditch your cynicism, skip the clichés, and go after what you love.