The Painter And The Thief

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Painter And The Thief
"Filled with humanism and raw emotion, the film builds as the double portrait that its title suggests, with Ree and his editor Robert Stengård employing a flexible structure that sometimes shifts backwards in time so that our perspective is also being cons" | Photo: Benjamin Ree

Benjamin Ree is a documentarian with a journalistic background - perhaps that's why he knows a good story when he sees it. Certainly, he has found one for his latest documentary - which charts the unexpected relationship that began when drug addict Karl-Bertil Nordland was part of a two-man team who stole paintings from Oslo-based Czech artist Barbora Kyslikova - although when Ree began the three-year-journey of making this film, it's unlikely even he expected the odd course that his story would take. Filled with humanism and raw emotion, the film builds as the double portrait that its title suggests, with Ree and his editor Robert Stengård employing a flexible structure that sometimes shifts backwards in time so that our perspective is also being constantly challenged.

Ree has a strong instinct for documentary narrative, immersing us in the theft from the start as we see Kyslikova in the process of creating a painting of a swan that Nordland and his partner in crime would go on to steal. The heist unfolds as it was caught on CCTV, setting the scene economically without the need for voiceover or explanation. There's no mystery to the robbery, which was unplanned, and Nordland is soon caught - but despite admitting the crime he says he can't remember what he did with the painting. This seems incredible to Kyslikova - no small wonder given that the canvas is a hefty size - and it is most likely her desire to find out if he was lying that drives her to speak to him at the court house and ask him to pose for her. This moment in the story offers another illustration of Ree's aptitude for storytelling as he employs court-style drawings with audio, elegantly overcoming the fact that no video footage of the encounter was available.

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If it is surprising that Kyslikova asks Nordland to pose for her, it is equally unexpected that he immediately says yes. What begins as a tentative artist and model situation, with Nordland - as troubled as he is tattooed - becoming a sort of damaged muse, morphs into something much involved. Ree upends expectations by not simply keeping his focus on Nordland - although the moment when Kyslikova shows him the portrait she has done is one of the rawest pieces of emotion you're likely to see caught on camera for some time - but by also allowing Nordland to talk about the life of the painter, whose life has also been difficult. These shifting viewpoints allow their relationship to develop ambiguously, particularly as to what degree Kyslikova is drawn to Nordland in order to pull him out of his darker places, or to observe him in them, a complexity that is retained to the last.

Ree's film really brings home how important other people's perceptions are. Most obviously in the moment when Nordland realises that Kyslikova has not merely been looking at him but has "seen him" in a way he didn't expect. But as Nordland puts it - and the film later explores - Kystlikova "forgets I see her too". Ree gives the pair of them space to articulate their thoughts. The film also highlights how even a small act of humanism can have far-reaching consequences. The Painter And The Thief can't have been easy to shoot, especially as Nordland is struggling with addiction when the film begins. Ree takes note, while retaining focus on the central friendship, he finds room to show anxiety inducing the prospect of rehab can be. An accident at the film's midway point brings fresh challenges for both of the film's participants and reflections on their own personalities that they didn't expect. Events, no doubt, proved a challenge for Ree as well, but he keeps firm control of the film, allowing the full picture to emerge at its own pace until it fills the frame in unexpected ways.

Reviewed on: 24 Jan 2020
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An artist befriends the drug addict and thief who stole her paintings and an unusual relationship begins

Director: Benjamin Ree

Year: 2020

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: Norway


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