I have always wanted to learn where Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his team of civic militia guards are off to in The Night Watch, and I waited in anticipation for the non-pipe of Magritte to start smoking as the non-tobacco catches fire. And of course it would be nice to know if the two young men also strip naked eventually beside the Venus next door revealing her charms in the famous painting of Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, or if the outrageous state of affairs is permanent.
Setting paintings in motion is of course not a revolutionary idea. Recently almost the entire life work of Van Gogh was animated in Loving Vincent, the 65 thousand frames of which artists painted using oil and brush on real canvas in order to create the awe-inspiring effect. On the other hand the film that was in production for six years was built on this single idea, and as the film approached its end, the viewer became saturated with the miracle, and the concept lost its initial intensity: it is difficult to remain dumbfounded for 95 minutes. Nonetheless, the work of Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman was the surprise and sensation of the previous year.
That of this year, however, is linked to the name Milorad Kristic: as opposed to the English-Polish project, the Hungarian thriller working with the tried and true components of the film noir genre and action movies, the baseline story is enriched by numerous little gags. The visual fabric becomes so dense that the viewers vow to come and see it again, as they surely have missed some of the references, they omitted to smile at every deserving witty moment, they must have overlooked some of the elaborate details.
Ruben Brandt, Collector almost strains the eye with its crowdedness, it is a crash course and an advanced course in fine arts, which nevertheless has its emphasis not on instruction and education, but on entertainment. The story is gripping and full of twists, and not only does it use the basic tricks of the film noir trade and the commonplaces of movies about art thieves, it also satirises these: a parody with a straight face.
A strange gang is looting the biggest picture galleries of the world, and the most important works of art history keep disappearing, until a private eye figures out what connects these paintings, and where all the tangled threads lead, in other words, who the mysterious collector is. In the meantime, he has to tackle riddles and rival gangs due to the astonishing award for the person solving the mystery. The greatest challenge, however, is posed by love and Mimi, the typical femme fatale. For Kristic’s movie the story is not merely a pretext to fulfil his own visual ideas and present us with a fireworks of fine arts, fusing the various portrayals of classic and modern art into a single, witty vision. It would be difficult even to list the artists whose craft is to be discovered in the film (in addition to the stolen paintings in the limelight), or the cinematic quotes and references that make the film a vigorous, sparkling whirlwind, while it maintains its originality like an Esterházy prose with its high degree of intertextuality.
We have car chases, cat-and-mouse fights, we hear shots, we see dead bodies, and the dialogues are not offhand either. But even in spite of the elaborate script, the spectacular visual experience leaves us with a feeling that in terms of originality the content is somewhat lagging behind the images. The plot twists simply cannot be as original as the frames are complex and energetic. That is unless we give in to the interpretation fortunately offered by Ruben Brandt, namely, that everything should be put between quotation marks and given a cream-coloured nuance. Through these lenses the ending can also seem less strained and threadbare. It can instead seem like giving the viewer a nudge: we all know how stories like these usually end, eh?
Humour, on the other hand is very helpful in neutralising commonplace motifs, and it is mostly very refined and made up of lots of small gags, as far from slapstick as it can be. Some have compared it to Cat City, but the parallel is inadequate: Ruben Brandt works with an entirely different wit, nevertheless it has the potential to become such an important piece of work as Béla Ternovszky’s classic – especially if it gets a little Oscar buzz. But instead of the quotable gags to be recited by later generations this film is made extraordinary by its artwork, its spectacular solutions and its way of bringing artistic tradition to life.
It would be fair to say that Ruben Brandt has the same effect on the viewer as the timeless humour of Cat City, but achieves it in a more subtle and refined manner. We can be certain, however, that watching and re-watching the adventures of Mimi and the Collector will soon ripen Kristic’s dazzling movie into a classic. But it won’t work like a jolly shot in our favourite pub, instead, it resembles a good wine getting richer in its flavour every year.
Translated by Péter Papolczy.