Director: Benjamin Ree
Art can be transformational not just for the viewer but also for the artist and their subject as Benjamin Ree’s documentary film The Painter and the Thief reveals. The relationship between an artist and their muse is a complex one in which the muse usually fascinates the creative. In this, rather extraordinary case, both Barbora Kysilkova and Karl Bertil-Nordland profoundly affect each other’s lives after meeting under the most extraordinary circumstances – when he steals two of her paintings from an Oslo gallery in 2013 and promptly forgets what he did with one of them, while co-conspirator, named in the film as Mikael, loses the other.
That, you think, will be the driving force of Ree’s film and, although it does frame the unfolding story, what The Painter and the Thief captures is both far more engaging and surprisingly meaningful as two scarred and incredibly vulnerable people find common ground, a place where art brings purpose and inspiration. Ree’s film eschews a narrator to have the protagonists provide background on each other as part of an implicit psychological analysis as they try to understand the hold they exert.
Anyone expecting a true-to-life version of Danny Boyle’s Trance, in which the memory of a lost painting must be extracted from the perpetrator, may be surprised by the insight Ree provides as the story, filmed over several years, evolves unexpectedly, looking at the points where art and life intersect. Watching the fragile Karl break down when Barbora reveals her first painting of him is extraordinarily moving, a man stunned that anyone would think his life was worth recording.
This investment in his subjects only grows as Ree explores Karl’s struggle with drugs, petty crime and his own self-doubt that characterise his progress, building to a series of dramatic and life-changing events that the artist supports him through. The friendship with Barbora is a deepening constant in an otherwise chaotic life. Yet, his choices lead to a physical transformation, starkly present in the way Ree cuts his film, that is heart-warming and a positive conclusion to a documentary with a message about hidden depth beneath the surface.
Yet Ree isn’t afraid to hint at the potentially detrimental effects of this relationship when Barbora’s partner Øystein Stene asks her to consider the emotional impact of supporting such a troubled man while still navigating her own experience of domestic abuse, manifested through her work as an obsession with death. Karl also writes frequent letters to her that we never see answered, and over time there are several scenes where phone calls go to voicemail making the viewer wonder if the artist promised too much, or is thief too reliant on her?
Ree structures his film around five sections that shift the perspectives between Barbora and Karl, following them for a time before The Painter and the Thief retraces its steps, reeling back six months to see events from the alternative perspective, while mixing in photographs, CCTV footage of the original crime and fascinating recordings of Barbora constructing several of her paintings over days and weeks.
This may not be the film you expect from the title, demystifying the idea that art theft is a victimless crime, yet this is primarily a story of how kindness brought two people together in the most unusual circumstances. Ree’s film is raw, sometimes intrusively so as it burrows into the respective pain of the painter and the thief, but the transformative friendship that emerges proves that art really does change lives.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October