Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Neon releases the film to VOD on Friday, May 22.
On April 20, 2015, two large oil paintings were stolen from Oslo’s Galleri Nobel. The story didn’t quite rise to the level of international news — the work was only valued at €20,000 — but it was nevertheless a life-fracturing moment for Barbora Kysilkova, a gifted yet struggling young Czech artist who poured her trauma into those photoreal canvases for safekeeping. Both of the culprits were apprehended just a few days later, but Kysilkova only cared that neither of the paintings were found; something invaluable had been taken from her, and returning two random junkies to an Etsy-crafted Norwegian jail wasn’t going to make up the difference. She needed those men to provide another painting. And so Kysilkova, professing “a sort of obligation to continue the story,” walked up to one of the suspects during his trial and asked an unexpected question: “I wonder if I could paint you?”
So begins Benjamin Ree’s nuanced and beguiling new documentary about the various things we all take from each other. The filmmaker followed the case even before it went to court, and was there in Kysilkova’s tiny studio to witness one of her first private sessions with Karl-Bertil Nordland. It’s a raw and loaded encounter in a frequently riveting movie that’s full of them, but Ree shoots “The Painter and the Thief” with the probing composure of a scripted European drama (few documentaries make it so easy to imagine their narrative remakes).
Nordland is posing for Kysilkova, and both of them are posing for Ree’s camera. From the start, the filmmaker’s rigid style reflects a shared (but unspoken) awareness that the relationship between Kysilkova and Nordland will be a work of art unto itself, and perhaps even more valuable than anything else they make together.
Ree could never have predicted how that relationship would evolve over the next few years, but he was able to see the potential for some kind of alchemy. For one thing, Kysilkova and Nordland are naturally compelling foils. She’s a fragile but headstrong artist who wears her curiosity like a ribcage around her wounded heart. By contrast, his protective shell is far more obvious; a repeat criminal whose inherent decency and professional dreams were corrupted by all the usual systemic obstructions (drugs, violence, organized crime, etc.). Nordland has leaned in to the felon lifestyle in such a performative way that it seems like he’s actively trying to dissuade himself from the hard work of self-improvement. You can see it in his “Honor Among Thieves” neck tattoo, his decision to get the words “Snitchers Are a Dying Breed” inked across his entire chest, and — most transparently of all — in his wardrobe of posturingly aggro t-shirts that he must have stolen from an oversized 13-year-old boy (one typical shirt boasts the slogan: “Fat people are hard to kidnap”).
By the time Ree started filming, however, it was already obvious that Nordland was a more sensitive soul than he seemed. When the painter confronts the thief in court and asks him why he stole her work, Nordland replies, “It was beautiful.” When Nordland sees Kysilkova’s first portrait of him, he wallows into an animalistic wail that recalls Anwar Congo’s exorcism-like breakdown in “The Act of Killing.” It’s a more primal and exciting reaction than Kysilkova could have anticipated, though you also get the sense that it’s exactly the kind of response that she and Ree had hoped to provoke, even if neither of them would admit as much to themselves.
But if the first act of “The Painter and the Thief” plays into a number of common socio-economic assumptions — Ree, Kysilkova, and the audience are all complicit in a power imbalance that positions Nordland as the unthinking object of their gaze and/or control — the film is most compelling for how it complicates that dynamic, levels the playing field, and leans into the aesthetics of suffering. Perhaps Ree always saw the potential for that, too. After crystallizing the idea that Nordland is seeing himself for the first time, the criminal sledgehammered by the kind of artistic revelation that Ree and Kysilkova administer for a living, the film suddenly uproots its perspective, puts the painter on pause, and aligns itself with the thief’s point of view. “She sees me,” Nordland says of his new friend, “but she forgets that I can see her too.”
Affording Nordland his own narrative agency is hardly a brave or radical choice, but Ree doesn’t pat himself on the back for his efforts to humanize both of his title characters. Instead, “The Painter and the Thief” recognizes how art — ostensibly, empathetic art most of all — has a nasty habit of flattening its subject in order to fulfill its audience, and the film does what it can to complicate the privileged gaze of looking at someone like they can’t look at you back. The worst version of this movie would have simply leveled the playing field and let a cold story of artistic exploitation thaw into an unusual friendship. However, a terrible accident comes along to reshuffle the deck at a critical moment, and the director is unafraid to reckon with how this new trauma might destabilize the painter and the thief’s established codependency. It seems we are all thieves in one way or another; that truly selfless art requires an equal exchange between a painter and their subject.
But Ree only proves that equation at the tail end of a movie that often feels as though it’s skirting the issue. Intimate and involving as it can be, “The Painter and the Thief” increasingly leaves the impression that Kysilkova and Nordland are holding something back; that Uno Helmersson’s shimmering and mysterious score is full of secrets. Ree’s film never feels like just a story of friendship — you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And it does, but not until a final shot hints at a much deeper well of psychosexual intrigue than “The Painter and the Thief” ever manages to probe. For all the clever ways the film encourages us to reassess those roles, Ree leaves us feeling as though we’re the ones who’ve been robbed.
“The Painter and the Thief” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition.