directed by Benjamin Ree
by Walter Chaw Shot over the course of three years, Benjamin Ree's documentary The Painter and the Thief details the relationship that blooms between artist Barbora Kysilkova and a man, Karl-Bertil Nordland, who stole two of her paintings from a gallery. That's it. You should see this movie and then come back here because I want to talk about it with someone--but you should see it first. Okay. You back?
He doesn't remember, however, what he's done with the paintings, seeing as he took them in the midst of a month-long meth and alcohol bender. Their first session together, as she takes pictures and sketches, he betrays a sharp intellect and quick wit. Then when Barbora downloads on her day with her older-seeming, gentle boyfriend, they notice Karl-Bertil has a tattoo on his chest that reads "Snitchers Are A Dying Breed." She realizes that he'll never tell her where the paintings are, even if he remembers. He keeps things close to the vest. But that changes when Karl-Bertil sees the first portrait she completes of him. In it, he's dressed in a clean white shirt and appears to be pulling something out of a glass of red wine. Karl-Bertil disintegrates. He's shocked. He's helpless to finish a thought, and then he sobs. Big, wracking, heaving sobs. Barbora reaches out to him, and he rebuffs her. Barbora is Barbora and Karl-Bertil is still just Karl-Bertil.
He later writes her a letter, two closely-cropped, hand-written pages where he tells her that no one's ever seen him like that before. He says he would write more but that he's out of paper. I like that image. It suggests to me there are miles on a page that you can reach the end of like you can reach the end of a road. Ree films their relationship as it develops into a genuine friendship based on empathy and acceptance. He never becomes a different person. She doesn't, either. They're largely incapable, apparently, of change, and so they are very much like all of us. It seems as if it would be about how a hardened criminal and junkie finds the light through art--but he already loves art. Then it seems like it'll be, as most of these things tend to be, about how Barbora learns to count her blessings through her friendship with a doomed, tragic friend. No. Midway through, Ree flips the perspective and Karl-Bertil, sharp as a scalpel, peels back the layers of trauma that would lead to Barbora needing to paint and needing, too, to befriend someone so broken and familiar.
There's nothing pat or easy about The Painter and the Thief; itself a work of poetry and art, the film plays with the meaning of its own title at several points. Is Barbora stealing something from Karl-Bertil in her interrogation of him through her paintings? Has he consented to be laid quite this bare? He's badly wounded at one point in a car accident and Barbora is the first at his side. She answers a phone call from her landlord that she's been avoiding, and though she's plainly a brilliant artist (genuinely gifted, in fact), she can't make the rent and is about to be tossed out on the street. Her boyfriend confronts her eventually. He's not jealous of her closeness with Karl-Bertil, but he's concerned she has an appetite for self-destruction. She says she can't stop painting because she doesn't know who she is if she isn't painting, and I, despite not being gifted in the same way, understand exactly what she's talking about anyway. It's an old saw that film rarely captures the act of creation, yet The Painter and the Thief comes close to capturing the headwaters of creativity. It's some miasma of trauma, grief, and coping mechanism. It's madness and addiction. Mental illness. And the very opposite thing of the romantic image of the driven genius. I love this movie. It's a precious thing. Programme: World Cinema Documentary Competition