Imagine a shrink being driven nuts by characters from 13 of the world’s most famous paintings, each of whom want to attack him. That’s the premise of this mesmerizing mindbender and the fiction feature debut of Slovenian-born artist Milorad Krstic, who’s starting his potently promising film career at the ripe young age of 66. Produced in Hungary, this English-language film thrusts us into the world of Ruben Brandt (voiced by Ivan Kamaras), a psychotherapist with nightmares he can’t explain or control. In the first dream scene, set on a train speeding through the countryside, Diego Velázquez’s Infanta Margarita springs sharp teeth and uses them to rip off Ruben’s arm. It’s an attention-getter, for sure. And so are the visions of Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis trying to shoot Ruben or Botticelli’s Venus yanking him into the sea; ditto a menacing figure from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks stabbing him in the jugular
Ruben theorizes that the bad dreams will cease if he if can gain possession of the paintings. Ha! Stealing masterpieces from world-famous galleries — the Louvre, the Tate, MoMa, the Uffizi, the Musée d’Orse and the Art Institute of Chicago among them — is not a job for the weak-willed. Since Ruben treats a few patients with law-breaking tendencies, he calls on four of them to aid in his master plan. First up is Mimi (Gabriella Hamori), a kleptomaniac with the skills of a cat burglar. She is followed by Bye-Bye Joe (Matt Devere), a celeb bodyguard; Fernando (Christian Niels Buckholdt), a computer genius; and Membrano Bruno (Henry Grant), a bank robber.
No fair ruining the fun by divulging how the robbers work their mischief. But after the media decides there’s only one thief who they dub “The Collector,” detective Mike Kowalski (Csaba “Kor” Márton) starts sniffing around. A collector himself — the man loves his movie memorabilia — Kowalski also gets on the case of gang leader Vincenzo (Butch Engle) and others attracted by the millions insurance companies are offering as reward. Luckily, Krestic seems just as knowledgeable as his cinephile cop when it comes to Hollywood history and the trick of pumping thrills into an action scene. Franchises from Mission Impossible to Ocean’s Eleven are evoked, along with genres from film noir to martial arts. And look for the ingenious way the filmmaker gets Alfred Hitchcock to join in the melee.
For his own visual style, Krestic leans hard on Picasso-like cubism that allows him to playfully manipulate geometric shapes. Ruben Brandt, Collector is always a feast for the eyes, but it’s the intellectual curiosity on display that raises the bar. It digs into the roots of Ruben’s psychosis by going back to his childhood and the subliminal messages instilled in him through the psychological experiments conducted by his father. Too much? Sometimes. Krestic packs so much in that he gets perilously close to creating a jumble. But the flaws can’t disguise what is truly a prodigious achievement. Set to a haunting score by Tibor Cari, the film is a frisky collage of surprising depth and feeling. As Ruben says, “Art is the key to the troubles of the mind.” It’s also the path to a transporting and transcendent cinema marvel that re-invents what animation can do.