If “Arabesque”/”Charade”-era Stanley Donen had dropped acid at a history of modern art exhibition after viewing a James Bond film, the prompted reverie might resemble Eastern European animator Milorad Krstić’s voluptuously trippy, wildly original art-theft romp “Ruben Brandt, Collector.” An acrobatic, larkish globetrotting adventure about paintings and psychotherapy that defies easy categorization save inclusion on any adult animation fan’s must-see list, its slinky, colorful pleasures and wittily referential joie de vivre are like a lifeline in a season when the art house is typically beholden to severe, award-seeking bids to depress you.
Seeing as Krstić’s movie is built around a man suffering from nightmares in which great artists’ works attack him, the Slovenian-born, Hungary-based filmmaker is cheeky enough to suggest what his version of the cure for fear of art is: the luxe cinematic thrills of elegantly designed chases, capers, and sensuality. Kristić’s template is art-thief confection dipped in a savory coating of mind-bending, noirish mystery, but imagined with techniques both hand-drawn and computer-generated. What emerges tickles the senses the way a danger-filled convertible ride along the Riviera with a sexy companion would.
Ruben (voiced by Iván Kamarás) is a bespectacled psychotherapist whose sleeping hours typically result in a figure from a famous painting — Manet’s reclining Olympia, Duveneck’s whistling lad, Bazille’s Renoir portrait — trying to kill him. In the opening, a mood-setting dream sequence set on a train hurtling through a foreboding countryside, Velázquez’s Infanta Margarita develops monster teeth and tears into Ruben’s arm.
In the waking world, Ruben’s specialty is treating artistic souls, especially those who run afoul of the law. When a ravishing, gymnastically gifted cat burglar named Mimi (voiced by Gabriella Hámori) enters his life as a patient, she wants to help. Inspired by Ruben’s belief in conquering through possession, she hits upon the doctor-heal-thyself notion of recruiting a few of his other larcenously talented patients to pilfer from the world’s great galleries (the Uffizi, the Louvre, etc) the 13 specific works that torment Ruben’s subconscious. (One of them is Magritte’s infamously confounding pipe painting, perhaps because of its apt title, “The Treachery of Images.”)
As with any international campaign of sneak-and-grab, there are pursuers: a mobster out for the reward, and movie-obsessed art-crimes investigator Mike Kowalski (Csaba “Kor” Márton), whom we first encounter chasing Mimi’s red Benz through the streets of Paris in a dynamic and flirtatious sequence equal parts Frankenheimer and French New Wave. A later action sequence has the choreography chops of a George Miller multi-vehicle ripsnorter.
Art/movie citations dot Krstić’s sumptuous frames beyond the protagonist’s name blend (Rubens, Rembrandt), and the fact that the filmmaker’s humans suggest the eye-popping surrealist two-dimensionality of Picasso by way of Joan Miró. Characters might run across a recognizable De Chirico landscape, or sit for a street portrait that becomes a Modigliani, or be in the vicinity of a shout-out to a famous photograph. Alfred Hitchcock’s silhouette makes a particularly funny cameo, and if the Kowalski name triggered your cinephile mind — not “Streetcar”-related — then the appearance of a certain automobile will reward that knowledge. But if you also listen carefully to the chanteuse in a swanky club where ex-Cold War enemies converge, you’ll hear cabaret versions of Radiohead and Britney Spears. Krstić’s cultural cocktail blend is, if anything, polymathically perverse.
It’s probably asking too much that “Ruben Brandt, Collector” sustain its pop-art ebullience across its entire running time. But the dips are hardly depressions, and there’s nearly always a frisky detail to enjoy or virtuosic tableau to bathe in, all of it augmented wonderfully by Tibor Cári’s appealing score. Mostly, though, Krstić, whose background encompasses set design and sculpture, painting and photography, has shown everybody how to throw down the first-feature gauntlet at the age of 66: with Warhol’s holstered “Elvis I & II” facing down our hero and declaring, “Draw!”
‘Ruben Brandt, Collector’
Rated: R, for nude images and some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica