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Thread: THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF (Benjamin Ree 2020)

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF (Benjamin Ree 2020)



    Art and transgression: a mutual attraction

    This is a film that delves into a variety of topics, including the complex sources of artistic inspiration; dangerous attractions; rebirth; and the rehabilitation of a damaged person.

    It's a sort of variation on the Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps: to attach yourself to and befriend the person who has wronged you. This is the process that's engagingly chronicled in The Painter and the Thief, a documentary that feels sometimes like a kind of reality television. Barbora Kysilkova is a Czech painter living in Oslo, Norway who does magically realistic paintings of angular, strange subjects. She has an exhibition at Oslo's Galleri Nobel. Two of the most important paintings in the show, one of young girls called Chloe and Emma and another of reeds and a large dead bird called Swan Song, are displayed in windows at the entrance of the gallery. And one night they are stolen. Surveillance camera footage enables the two thieves to be identified, apprehended, and sentenced to 75 days in prison. The paintings are not recovered. In the courtroom, Barbora is magnetically drawn to one of the men, Karl-Bertil Nordland.

    Things begin with Barbora asking Bertil to tell her where her paintings are, but he's an addict who was so high he remembers nothing about the heist. But Bertil becomes a kind of muse for Barbora. It doesn't matter to her, or rather attracts her, that Bertil is a troubled addict covered with tattoos that speak of his traumatic youth. His gnarly features, prematurely aged for a man in his mid-thirties, become her subject, his posing for long hours his imposed penance, their time together the beginning of an intense, loving friendship that is clearly troubling to Barbora's nice and stable Norwegian boyfriend, ěystein Stene. Barbora fled from Berlin and came to Oslo to escape an abusive, menacing relationship. Now is she seeking another one? Do artists, especially ones who do surreal, dramatic paintings like Barbora's, need danger and dysfunction in their lives to inspire them? Does she in life, as in her art, seek the wild side?

    The unguarded, open-spirited Barbora develops extremely warm feelings toward Bertil, which he seems to return. They really seem to click. Through the course of this risky but for Barbora inspiring relationship Bertil eventually goes through a worse ordeal, leading to a time in hospital and subsequently a longer prison sentence. He goes through a transformation.

    Eventually things sort out. Barbora was never a rich or famous artist. Her paintings are great for a movie. If you wanted wild and extravagant looking images for the cinema screen these would be almost too good to be true. But she can't get another gallery to accept her not well known and not at all popularly appealing work. She has trouble paying her rent. At the end there are several dramatic discoveries and major changes.

    The Painter and the Thief seems best for simply capturing the basic matter of its title: the encounter of these two balls-out characters. Bertil tells Barbora in an early private meeting that he stole the paintings because they were "beautiful," and when she comes to visit him, his home is full of framed pictures. He is in some sense artistic himself. One should add that he apparently came from a middle-class background, though one in which he was abandoned and traumatized. He used to be a fine carpenter. He has other skills, and did well at school. Trauma led him to addiction and addiction led him to the life of a thug. His rebirth is more dramatic than anything that happens to Barbora. Her transforming effect on Bertil shows when he looks at her first completed painting of him and, feeling "seen" for the first time, bursts into long, uncontrollable sobbing.

    It may be harder for her to change. They are both artistic types, in a way, and when you see them chatting and smoking and quaffing coffee together they seem very much two of a kind. What about ěystein Stene, though, Barbora's boyfriend? How does he fare through all this?

    This is certainly an engaging film that provides, among other things, glimpses of what being an artist can be like. There is always the question, here more than usual, of how authentic behavior is when there is a third unseen person always present with a camera in the room filming everything that's said and done. The filmmaker, who started as a journalist working for Reuters, is only 30, but he was already known for his 2014 Magnus about the Norwegian chess prodigy and current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlson. He has moved agilely and invisibly, gaining good chemistry with the principals through their shared youth. Structural aspects aren't quite as good as he may have meant them to be: the chronology is somewhat confused; there are lacunae. Presenting the story later on from Bertil's point of view (and narrated in Norwegian: most of the dialogue when Barbora's onscreen being in English), is a strategy that doesn't come off as well as intended or provide as clear a contrast as the director had in mind. But despite these flaws this is an intimate, striking dual portrait of two unusual individuals and brings out the links between art and transgression in some fresh and interesting ways.

    The Painter and the Thief, 106 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, included in at least 16 other international festivals including Rotterdam, Zurich and London. US and Canadian internet release May 22, 2020. On multiple internet platforms and free if you have Hulu. Metascore: 79%.

    Portfolio of the artist's paintings.


    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-01-2021 at 08:15 AM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area
    Joe Morgenstern's review of the movie from the WSJ:

    ‘The Painter and the Thief’ Review: An Engrossing Double Portrait
    After two of her paintings are stolen, an artist gets to know one of the perpetrators in Benjamin Ree’s documentary.

    The best documentary features go beyond the when and how of a given event to plumb the mysteries of what possessed the people involved to do what they did. Benjamin Ree’s “The Painter and the Thief” starts with an odd art theft at a gallery in Oslo in 2015—two paintings cut out of their frames and spirited off by a couple of men, one wearing a hoodie and the other a knitted cap, under the gaze of security cameras. The oddity of the crime lay in the value of the art—relatively low, except to the artist, a young Czech woman who was neither famous nor rich. The beauty of the film lies in the bond she forges with one of the thieves after they’re found by police and sentenced to 75 days in prison. Questions of identity haunt both the victim and the perp—not their names or addresses, but who they are in the farthest reaches of their psyches, and who they may become.

    The painter, Barbora Kysilkova, is an open spirit with an easy smile. The brains, so to speak, of the gallery heist is Karl Bertil-Nordland, a hardcore gangster, by his own account, and a junkie with a disordered cortex who doesn’t seem to fit any art-purloiner profile. She not only reaches out to him as a gesture of empathy or generosity, but decides to paint his portrait. She also wants answers to obvious questions. Why did he do it? Because, he replies, he thought the paintings were beautiful. Where are they now? He doesn’t remember. She doesn’t understand how he doesn’t remember. “How,” he says provocatively, “can you understand a junkie who’s been awake for four days and using 20 grams of amphetamine and a hundred pills? That wasn’t me.”

    It’s an intriguing response in an ambiguous situation. The man claims to have been a mystery to himself. Who was the thief, then? And why is she drawn to paint him? To know him? She doesn’t pretend to know herself all that well. Still, the attraction is intense, and when she shows him the finished portrait—when he realizes how much she cares about him and sees how she sees him—it’s a slow-building, clearly spontaneous moment of astonishing intensity that a fiction film might have toned down in the interests of plausibility.

    A few other moments feel less than spontaneous, more like discussions staged somewhat awkwardly for the benefit of narrative clarity; Mr. Ree began work on the film after reading newspaper accounts of the theft and had lots of catching up to do. (The surveillance footage is authentic. So is video shot at Barbora’s gallery opening before the theft. The thieves’ trial is dealt with stylishly by way of a few courtroom drawings.) For the most part, though, the relationship between Barbora and Bertil, as she calls him, grows on camera from improbable friendship to spiritual love. And not just love in the abstract; when Bertil comes close to killing himself in a car accident, Barbora signs on as his faithful caregiver.

    “The Painter and the Thief” is really a tale of two portraits, the one Barbora paints and the one Mr. Ree constructs from the evidence she uncovers in the course of her caring. Together they form the film’s core, and provide a reminder of how perilous it can be to write people off on the basis of who they seem to be. Bertil is, by every outward sign, a self-destructive wreck who, with the help of his best friend, heroin, has dismantled his once-promising life beyond repair. Yet Barbora thinks otherwise. It’s not that she thinks she can fix him. She believes he can fix himself, and the movie makes her case persuasively.

    Write to Joe Morgenstern at


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