MOVIE REVIEW: Ruben Brandt, Collector

Stendhal Syndrome describes the phenomenon of being completely overcome with an extreme physical, mental, and/or emotional response to viewing a work of art. Symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, heart attacks, giddiness, dissociation, or even hallucinations, all triggered by experiencing something of particularly high artistic quality. The awe mingles with a sense of disorientation, leaving the viewer dazed and excitable and moved to agony. (People have been known to fall prey to these reactions when seeing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling or the David.)
If you came to Ruben Brandt asking to be treated for Stendhal Syndrome, the good psychologist might have a solution for you—or perhaps it would remind him far too much of his own troubled relationship with beautiful works of art. Indeed, Ruben Brandt’s own issues may be considered slightly more pressing than a case of ordinary Stendhal Syndrome: the protagonist of Ruben Brandt, Collector is tormented nightly with visions of being physically attacked by the subjects of thirteen famous paintings, including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Andy Warhol’s Elvis I & II, and Vincent van Gogh’s Postman. Visiting the works in person has no ameliorative effect; when Ruben visits the Musée d’Orsay to view Edouard Manet’s Olympia, the female subject of the painting coos at him while the cat from the edge of her bed leaps out of the painting, scratching his cheeks bloody. Everyone else in the room simply sees what could be performance art, or, more accurately, a mental breakdown.

In his daytime life, Brandt operates a serene clinic on a lake in Slovenia, where he treats patients with the ironic dictum: “art is the key to the troubles of the mind.” Using art as both tool and example, Ruben encourages his patients to manifest in themselves the things they cannot have, or want to accomplish. For loudmouth ex-bodyguard Bye-Bye Joe, the treatment is achieving silent stillness, and he poses for hours like Rodin’s The Thinker. For kleptomaniac cat burglar Mimi, the treatment is to paint what she is missing from her life, even if she can’t envision it exactly. In her more materialistic mien, she remarks: “possess your problems to conquer them.”
But beneath his calm veneer of expertise, Ruben Brandt is suffering in a truly isolating way: these culturally ubiquitous objects of art that have so much beauty and meaning for everyone else have been causing him psychic and even real physical pain, and nothing he does seems to help. While the cat may not have escaped Olympia to scratch him, or the little girl from Diego Velázquez’s Infanta Margarita might not have appeared outside a train window and bitten his arm, the scratches on his cheeks and the bite marks on his arm are very, very real. A therapist he visits probes him to talk about his own recently-deceased father, who made him watch hours upon hours of animated film strips in their home, ultimately telling the recalcitrant Ruben that he’s going to kill himself or someone else if he doesn’t actively try to get help. So when Mimi, Bye-Bye Joe, and the other patients from his clinic team up to bring him peace, naturally it’s a reflection of Ruben’s own teachings: they break into museums and steal the paintings that are the subjects of his nightmares—which, incredibly, works. Possess your problems to conquer them, indeed.

Ruben Brandt, Collector is the debut feature film of Hungarian animator Milorad Krstić, and it is a truly idiosyncratic film that wears its appreciation of art history on its sleeve, meaning that I, as an art historian, pretty much love it to bits. It slowly changes genre throughout, going from a heist film to film noir to conspiracy thriller as we slowly learn how Ruben Brandt is connected to Mike Kowalski, the cocky detective on the thieves’ trail with a thing for Mimi. Why these thirteen paintings, and what does Ruben’s father’s death have to do with the nightmares? Why are shady men in a bar talking about a man named Gerhard who developed techniques for subliminal programming with film strips? Why are these paintings linked irrevocably with violence towards Ruben?

The animation style is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in film: the character designs are largely simple, rendered in two-dimensional animation, but all have elongated faces and stylized, graceful body language. The world of Ruben Brandt, Collector peppers in elements of surrealism (characters will have three eyes or multiple faces and it goes unremarked upon), almost giving the movie a feel of magical realism. One of the patients at the clinic, Membrano Bruno, is completely two-dimensional, meaning he can slip under locked doors and more easily steal things. The character designs are spare and effective, allowing the voice actors to do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting and characterization. Membrano Bruno and Bye-Bye Joe have an ongoing banter-y bit about whether Bruno’s father was a dot or a line—i.e., one-dimensional—since his mother was three-dimensional.

It’s also delightful to me personally to find references and pastiches of other works of art—not the ones attacking Ruben—cleverly incorporated in the scenery, like when a bartender posed exactly like Renoir’s A Bar at the Folies Bergère is viewable for a split-second during a chase scene through a nightclub. The Nighthawks attacking Brandt in his dream appear inside a typical Giorgio de Chirico setting of empty archways. Everything is a reference to another thing, not the thing itself, twisted through this weird style of animation and world-building: a bar performer sings “All About That Bass” and “Creep,” but is dubbed with the Postmodern Jukebox covers of those songs rather than the originals. Alfred Hitchcock’s silhouette appears in the form of ice cubes. (Oddly, the one work of art that is not reinterpreted in Krstić’s style is Picasso’s Woman With Book, which is instead presented in its original form.)

What is ultimately most winning about Ruben Brandt, Collector is also why I so enjoyed Never Look Away: because these films are both about art itself as well as their imaginative use as propellers of narrative. The Da Vinci Code is not about the artistic and emotional significance of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper, but about their use as clues in a conspiracy theory. Ruben Brandt, Collector is not merely a movie about a psychologist who steals art, but uses the art itself as almost a character in the plot. The paintings come to life before our eyes, and in Ruben’s mind, allowing us to see how beautiful works of art can also manifest profoundly negative feelings as well as positive ones (or feelings of boredom, depending on your taste). When Mimi suggests “[possessing] your problems to conquer them,” it serves an obvious double meaning: yes, possess the paintings literally to stop being hurt by them, but Ruben Brandt must also take ownership of, or possess, his problems in order to conquer them, rather than locking them away with his dead father and refusing to confront them.