Benjamin Ree’s documentary The Painter and the Thief is a curious little film. As its title suggests, it’s a story about art and theft, a story about duelling opposites of privilege and troubled upbringing, and a story about a blossoming relationship born out of chaos. This is the story of Barbora Kysilkova, the young Czech artist whose work is stolen from a prestigious art gallery in Norway in 2015. The perpetrator Karl Bertil-Nordland is eventually caught, and so begins the director’s fascinating journey into its extraordinary circumstances.
There’s a cognitive dissonance that Ree’s documentary presents. It is a true story, filmed with a Netflix original aesthetic with a quiet mystery that slowly envelops its audience. Yet, the circumstances that surround its tale feel incredibly scripted, dramatized, and fictionalised. And for a film that blurs between every perceptive line of reality, Benjamin Ree subsequently plays around with our expectations.
It begins like a heist movie, wondering how a criminal (and his accomplice) could have pulled off an elaborate job in broad daylight. Our artist and her boyfriend Øystein Stene begin their own curious investigation. But before it wraps itself in those familiar beats we’re accustomed to, it tumbles down various rabbit holes where solving its mystery is not its immediate concern. Instead, it presents an open invitation for Karl to have his picture painted on canvas by Barbora.
Within its quiet yet unconventional setting, there’s an unescapable darkness to its story. Whenever Karl and Barbora explore their respective backgrounds, Ree views this as an opportunity to present a haunting highlight reel of their lives, switching the POV on various occasions. We learn Karl has a tendency for self-destruction based upon childhood experiences, trauma, and drug addiction. We learn that Barbora has been in an abusive relationship where fleeing to Norway was her refuge to start her life again. Her art is an insight to those trappings, the complete opposite from the friendly demeanour she alludes to. And as a combination that the documentary finds itself fascinated by – obsessed with it even – they are the epitome of opposites attract. As an audience, you’re almost waiting for that penny to drop. What is the twist that will eventually penetrate our minds that will have us gossiping like an episode of Tiger King? But surprisingly, it doesn’t happen.
While it understandably takes some time getting used to that lack of bombshell, The Painter and the Thief enjoys the poetic and cathartic approach to its story. You get the sense of the director was fortunate to capture what he could from the pairing. They befriend each other (despite Karl being suspicious of strangers). She paints canvas arts in his image – incredible to watch with all the details and precisions she manages to encapsulate. He reciprocates with letters of gratitude. In one scene, he bursts into uncontrollable tears, enamoured by the beauty she captures of him. There are occasional bouts of humour; after an accident that nearly renders him paralysed, Karl thanks Barbora for the Shakira CD, right after posting social media joke of his x-ray picture with the words ‘the hips don’t lie’. And invariably, seeing Karl transform himself is its biggest reward. If Ree makes a demonstrative point about the act of redemption and healing, suffering for the art in the process to create something beautiful, then that parallel (a very human one) is noted.
But the merit of the documentary comes down how audiences grasp its story. It’s hard to escape the cynicism that it evokes. Its most difficult aspect is how aimless most of it feels, never quite coming to terms with its investigative concept. Truth is undoubtedly stranger than fiction, but the broad strokes of empathy can only last for so long, unwilling to delve deep enough to understand their complex motivations and subsequent co-dependency. Why would an artist put herself, her income and livelihood on the line for one man? Other than beauty, how does Karl feel being watched, observed like an artist’s muse for an invested amount of time? Kindness, compassion, and a forgiving heart are one aspect. Two people connected by their damaged past is another, but the words ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ probably wouldn’t be absent from the conversation either.
But it boils down to how Ree documents the relationship. Through abstract eyes, they rarely acknowledge the camera, peering into their lives feels almost too voyeuristic and occasionally inauthentic at times. While it is careful to maintain its distance, refusing the natural urge to interfere, thematically, it rarely asks questions of its subjects or the moral and psychological ethics behind it, leaving that problem dilemma to Barbora’s concerned boyfriend. While it is hard to explain, but there’s something that inexplicably holds itself back from being the complete documentary that it wishes itself to be. It still makes for a compelling and engaging piece of work, just like how art imitates life (and vice versa). Inevitably, it eventually comes back full circle, solving the mystery it once set out to do. But in doing so, you are purposely suspending your disbelief to make the substance feel whole.
It may be style over substance, but the experimental feel it captures means in its own absorbing way, it finds itself to be a unique conversational starter.
THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. Out in UK cinemas 30th October 2020.