Truth and Movies

The Painter and the Thief

Review by Leila Latif @Leila_Latif

Directed by

Benjamin Ree

Starring

Barbora Kysilkova Karl Bertil-Nordland Øystein Stene

Anticipation.

Buzz out of Sundance has been remarkable but how will this premise fill 102 minutes?

Enjoyment.

He’s crying and I’m crying.

In Retrospect.

A beautiful story about extraordinary compassion.

A Czech artist develops an unlikely bond with the man who stole her work in this compassionate documentary.

Barbora Kysilkova is a Czech artist who creates large, hauntingly realistic oil paintings. She pours her whole self into her work which is powered by an obsessive attention to detail and includes depictions of her own abuse at the hand of past lovers.

Having recently relocated to Norway with her loving boyfriend Oystein Stenem, who identifies in her an “attraction to something destructive” she finds herself adrift in Oslo, deep in debt and desperate for approval. Two of her key paintings, Chloe & Emma and Swan Song, are stolen in broad daylight by a man who spent hours meticulously removing each nail from the frame in order to not damage the canvas. She is affected and intrigued by this strange theft.

The thief is a heavily tattooed and earnest man named Karl-Bertil Norland. He is quickly caught and, after the trial, they agree to meet and he expresses deep remorse for the act while remaining unable to recall details of the caper as he was so out of his mind on drugs. He can give her no discernible motive beyond, “because they were beautiful”. From that moment a bond is formed between the two, something akin to both kindred spirits and artists and muse.

Director Benjamin Ree examines this theme with gentle curiosity, never pushing the subjects to probe this dynamic too forcefully, but rather allowing it to slowly unveil itself. The film captures a moment where she presents him with a portrait of himself, and his silent reaction runs the gamut of shock, joy and uncontrollable sobbing. Without words we understand so much of his pain, his self-loathing and the significance of seeing himself lovingly immortalised as an object of beauty.

The film never specifies his trauma, rather it focuses on his potential. He was an academically gifted student who went on to be a BMX champion and worked with children with special needs. In his self-neglect he has become the worst version of himself. “My defects grow in the dark and die in the light of exposure,” he says. His drug addiction and repeated self-identification as just a “junkie” is not only over-simplistic but woefully inaccurate.

The film doesn’t directly posit that this has any significance beyond the subjects involved, but it is a story about so much more. What is the point of justice after all? What if we meet those who wrong us with radical empathy? What is the purpose and the healing potential of art? Where does addiction and obsession intersect? And as Oystein puts it, “What is the practical emotional risk of caring for someone who cannot take care of themselves?”

There are no easy answers. The path to redemption is difficult and messy. The power dynamic between artist and muse is complex and unhealthy, even between these two people who harbour the best of intentions. It is made all the more bleak by the pale blues and dark greys of the Norwegian landscape; they seem to exist in a quasi-Narnia where it is always winter but never Christmas. Despite all that, this film leaves you hopeful, inspired even, Could such profound kindness and deep emotional connection exist out there for all of us?

Published 30 Oct 2020

Tags: Benjamin Ree The Painter and the Thief

Anticipation.

Buzz out of Sundance has been remarkable but how will this premise fill 102 minutes?

Enjoyment.

He’s crying and I’m crying.

In Retrospect.

A beautiful story about extraordinary compassion.

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