The surprising and provocative documentary “The Painter and the Thief” is best not watched by more than one person at the time. After all, it is opening during the pandemic as a ‘Virtual Cinema’ release. This means that if it is watched by multiple individuals, they will most likely be in close and extended confinement. That confinement could become uncomfortable very fast after seeing the movie, which will elicit responses ranging from “That’s incredible” to “What was she thinking?” Director Benjamin Ree (‘Magnus’) has trained his camera on a colorfully chimeric story that will shift in meaning depending on the viewer.
As the title suggests, the film is centered around an art theft. But the crime itself turns out to be the least interesting part of the narrative. Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech-born artist now living in Oslo with her Norwegian partner, has two of her paintings stolen from the gallery where they were being shown in 2015. Caught on surveillance, the two thieves stroll through the deed with a sloppy kind of swagger that’s as far as can be from ‘Thomas Crowne Affair’ swank (one appears to be swigging from a beer as they bang around with the canvases). The two are quickly caught and brought to court, which is where the real story begins. In a moment recreated through audio and an artist’s renderings, the movie shows Barbora approaching one of the thieves, the rangy and somewhat vacant-eyed trouble vector Karl-Bertil Nordland, in the courtroom and asks him to pose for her.
Opinions on Barbora’s actions will diverge sharply from this point. She starts inviting Karl-Bertil over to her studio so she can sketch him as a subject for a larger portrait. Her interest in him is heightened to a nearly operatic tone, her face nearly gleaming as she looks at or talks about him. Almost a cliché of narcissistic self-destruction, he keeps largely to himself, and appears frequently strung out, with somewhat glassy eyes and a face angled sharply to the bone by some addictive substance; heroin comes up later, along with rehab. There is still a nevertheless soulful, wounded, and even gentle quality to his appearance that meshes quite well with the somewhat lavishly pained subject matter of her other oil portraits.
At the same time, though, she sits across from the man who stole two of her paintings (worth an estimated 20,000€, when she is having a hard time paying bills) and accepts when he says he was so out of his mind he cannot remember what he did with her painting. Viewers may wonder whether this is creative fascination, a true artist-muse relationship, willfully self-sabotaging masochism, or just poorly concealed romantic attraction? When he bursts into tears on seeing her first painting of him, though, those questions may well fade right away in a tide of pure emotion.
Ree, who started shooting their on-again-off-again interactions early on, appears to have quickly made himself part of the background. He chops up the timeline and perspectives, following one thread for a time and then cutting backward (“six months earlier”) or sideways (having Karl-Bertil relate his version of a stretch that Barbora just narrated). He peels the narrative back time and again, resisting easy explanations while maintaining a dramatic narrative pull continually juiced by new revelations. But while Ree does not place a finger on the scale, warning signs are flashing about a potentially unhealthy obsession. Karl-Bertil’s narration where he wonders about her problematic obsession with his dark side (“I think she finds inspiration there”) points to the chance that instead of being a sly manipulator of an artist’s liberal guilt he is himself objectified, while Barbora’s boyfriend’s concern that she is repeating patterns from a traumatic past suggests another darker take.
Given his story’s curlicues and lack of overt judgment, Ree does not appear to be interested in a clear morality story about forgiveness or opposites coming together. However, “The Painter and the Thief” does leave room for a kind of redemption at its conclusion. The fact that it can effectively do that while at the same time planting a seed of doubt in its beautifully framed last scene—without getting into specifics, Barbora has a particular painting up her sleeve whose message may cast her motives into doubt—is almost more impressive than the powerfully humanistic, multi-faceted, and argument-causing story that preceded it. [A-]
“The Painter and the Thief” will be released on Virtual Cinema On May 22.