The Painter and the Thief Review
“Art isn’t just a painting, it’s all the feelings,” Barbora Kysilkova reads aloud from a letter given to her by Karl-Bertil Nordland, “Nobody has ever seen me vulnerable like you. True, pure friendship.” They sit together as she reads it, both visibly moved. This friendship, which Benjamin Ree chronicles in his Sundance award-winning documentary The Painter and the Thief, had an unlikely beginning: Nordland and an accomplice stole two of Kysilkova’s paintings from a gallery window in Oslo, worth about €20,000. The paintings haven’t been recovered and Nordland claims he was so high at the time that he can’t remember what they did with them. At the trial Kysilkova approached Nordland and asked if he would consent to pose for a portrait, to which he agreed.
This is no Ocean’s 11 style heist - what unfolds is a compelling, if sometimes uncomfortable, story of unexpected kindred spirits, the impact of art, and of addictive personalities gripping on to each other to weather their own personal storms. Ree divides the film into four distinct chapters, beginning with Kysilkova in her studio preparing to meet Nordland, then alternating between their perspectives, with each section shedding more light on the events of the previous one.
Kysilkova’s style is mostly large, photo-realist style portraits, though Swan Song, one of the two stolen paintings, depicts a dead swan curled up amongst tangled reeds. Pale skin tends to gleam against inky indigo backgrounds and the human body is isolated and surrounded by darkness. She seems to be the perfect artistic match for Nordland, a troubled man in his mid thirties who fell into depression, drug addiction and self-destruction after a traumatic childhood. He claims he stole the paintings because they were beautiful. She is fascinated by him, asking questions about his tumultuous life while intensely studying his face and body. When she eventually shows him the finished portrait he breaks down into sobs and she embraces him. Their bond seems cemented.
Yet as the film progresses this inspirational story, the kind that might be whittled down into a mute viral Facebook video post to be idly scrolled past, becomes darker and more tangled. Kysilkova helps Nordland buy food and offers him seemingly limitless compassion and support, but she seems overwhelmingly interested in his struggles with addiction, seeing him as a source of artistic inspiration rather than a fully rounded person.
In the second chapter, the first from his perspective, Nordland reveals what Kysilkova has told him about her own trauma and her own self-destructive tendencies. As Nordland hurtles towards catastrophe her steadfast boyfriend begins to question the morality of their intense emotional connection, the imbalance of power and aestheticising someone else’s pain for your own benefit.
Director Benjamin Ree predominantly takes a fly on the wall approach, meaning it’s easy to forget about the presence of a documentary crew when Kysilkova and Nordland share moments of such raw emotional intimacy. Of course, the film has actually been carefully sculpted with its multiple chapters and shifting perspectives, self-consciously nodding towards the notion of art as something constructed and interpreted.
Kysilkova is not presented as a wholly selfless good Samaritan, but the ethics of her fixation on Nordland when he’s at his rock bottom of addiction and mental illness are never truly unravelled. Their connection is undeniably moving but this portrait has a bitter aftertaste that’s something like exploitation.
The Painter and the Thief is released in the UK on October 30.