Last Thanksgiving, I saw an avant garde video installation at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof. It was installed in the large, dark, open space behind the reception desk where the trains used to pull up to the platforms. The space has been a museum for a while now, housing carefully and sparsely displayed modern art (think, a can of Pepsi sitting on a white plinth) — but in this case less is just right, it really takes a lot of brain power to pour some of that stuff into my head.
Mostly I remember suffering from massive dehydration because Germans apparently don’t believe in water fountains. (“Yes, we have water. It is water in the bathroom sinks.”) But also, I remember my kid’s extremely perplexed expression as she sat in the middle of the large room, trying to make sense of a video installation that was happening on four screens around her.
On one screen a man rode a horse. On another screen, a train went through a tunnel. On another, the same film was showing, only at a differently looped time. And another had a different camera angle of a forest. A young man from a medieval era rode a horse to deliver a message, but his horse was shot. A floating pixelated demon (or maybe it was a computer daemon?) asked him why he was sad. “They shot my horse,” he said. Then, the chanting began: Fear rises. Darkness rises. Life rises. Hope rises.
“What,” said my kid, “is going on?”
We never figured it out. The installation was avant garde enough to never come to a resolution or suggest a meaning. But the dark, evocative, and strikingly un-American nature of the videos came to mind when I saw the Hungarian indie animation Ruben Brandt, Collector.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a plot to this one. It is simplistic, even, and every bit an old man’s fantasy. The plot is the aging director’s wish fulfillment, about a haunted yet handsome young psychologist who helps heal the trauma of a bunch of thieves. The thieves then, out of gratefulness, steal art for him to cure him of his art-inspired nightmares — the nightmares, Freudianly enough, are subliminally implanted by his scientist father.
Along the way, the thieves are pursued by various agencies who want a part of the bounty on their heads. Which art do they steal? 13 famous artworks, ranging from the Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis.
But the compelling part of this film, much like the video installation in Berlin, is in its layered and evocative imagery. Every frame, directed by Milorad Krstić and hand-drawn, is steeped in modernist art history; from the influence of Edward Gorey in each cat, to the Picasso-cum-Dali-esque faces full of eyes, to the Cubist backgrounds.
There is one especially gorgeous scene where the manic pixie dream psychologist directs the thieves in a session of group art therapy, a retelling of the Little Red Riding-hood story that becomes funky found jazz. The art pops like a music video, a jumble of MTV cut scenes and vivid poster art, and everything works in a way that I wish the whole movie could work. Does it advance the plot? It was more like Krstić’s Michael Bay moment — it looked cool so he left it in. But I’m glad he did.
The plot has action sequences that keep everything going, the stuff of Ocean’s 12 and every Russian parkour video on youtube. It also has a plot twist or two along the way. But mainly it has neat art. “Is that Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks?” “Is that a Gauguin woman lying naked on a boat?” “Is that a bird monster from Hieronymus Bosch?” The references were so many and varied that it’s nigh impossible to catch them all, but it’s clear they were inserted with a passionate hand.
This film comes to an ending that is less satisfying in an American-style emotional arc kind of way and more in a European-style visual arc way, looping back to the beginning sequence. It makes you wonder how many layers down the main character’s nightmares run. Has it all been a dream?
Whether or not you’re willing to hang out in the old train station waiting for meaning to chug in, the true delight of this movie was the ride.
Reuben Brandt, Collector opens Friday, March 15 at Regal Winter Park in Orlando.