There have been a glut of VOD documentaries that are infuriating in terms of what they omit. Capital in the Twenty-First Century was a slovenly rehash of an academic thesis, minus any sort of rigor and curiosity, while Spaceship Earth avoided a deep dive into its subject. There are documentaries where this kind of omission is forgivable, even useful, and that is for films where the subject is more personal. If Capital and Spaceship are about large-scale phenomena or matters of public record, The Painter and the Thief is an intimate look at an unlikely friendship. Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree lucks into this story about redemption and creativity, framing it such a way that the unanswered questions are intriguing, not a source of frustration.
The visual artist Barbora Kysilkova is the victim of an unusual crime. A painter who specializes in melancholy photo-realism, two of her finest paintings are stolen from a gallery in Oslo. Through police work and CCTV footage, the thieves are easily apprehended. Barbora follows the investigation, and she finds herself in court with Karl Bertil-Nordland, a handsome junkie with a refined sense of aesthetics. She confronts him in the courtroom, asking if he knows the painting’s whereabouts (he does not), and whether he would agree to meet her privately. He agrees, and their first awkward meeting leads to an intense friendship, one that surprises both in ways they could never dream.
Ree opts for a cinéma vérité, supplying little background information. What you see is what you get, so he is lucky Barbora and Bertil are expressive, articulate people. There is an early scene where Barbora reveals a painting she has made of Bertil, and the sight of it moves him to tears. This is an uninterrupted shot that clearly was not staged, and it is rare to see raw emotion like this. The film also unearths more about their personal lives, whether it is Barbora’s personal or financial struggles, or Bertil’s flirtation with drugs and self-destruction. Another key figure is Barbora’s longtime boyfriend, a patient enough man who grows increasingly disturbed by Barbora’s deep, seemingly platonic connection. Ree somehow has access to their couple’s therapy sessions, and he finds sympathy for the alarmed boyfriend, although she tells him not to worry.
The Painter and the Thief never explains a lot of key details. It is unclear, for example, how much time elapses in the film, even though Bertil has two stints in prison. Both he and Barbora undergo minor physical transformations, but the film jumps around in time so it is never quite clear what period we are seeing. Then there is the issue of access: how did Ree find himself in this story? Was he making a documentary about Barbora, and stumble into it? How was he able to capture such moments without these people minding they were on camera?
These questions admittedly are at the heart of cinéma vérité, and Ree is skillful enough to sidestep them through a bigger a sense of truth, whether it is real or approximated. These people are not actors, and there is a plausible psychological realism in the development of their relationship. In the latter passages of the film where we see Bertil leave prison and speak to mental health counselors, those questions of access drift away. He accepts the reality of the camera, almost to the point of ignoring it, and we follow his example.
Like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Painter and the Thief hints at the erotic subtext between an artist and their subject. Barbora paints several portraits, each of which must have required hours of regarding his lithe, tattooed body. Bertil almost immediately intuits that Barbora can see “the real him,” leaving him in a vulnerable state where an emotional bond is formed. Neither she nor he comment much on this, using platonic language to describe the care they have, which is why the final minutes are all the more remarkable. This is the sort of film you may want to watch twice, because it revises the relationship between these two remarkable people. Ree, like all great filmmakers, is a deft manipulator. He has confidence to show you his hand, finally, and the way he pulls out the proverbial rug is both subtle and devastating.
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