Director: Benjamin Ree
Section: World Cinema Documentary Competition
Benjamin Ree's The Painter and the Thief opens with young Czech naturalist Barbora Kysilkova – who lives in Oslo with her partner – learning that two of her paintings were stolen from an art gallery. CCTV images reveal a couple of junkies behind the theft. She is upset, but also amused: What sort of junkies steal paintings? Naturally, they are caught. One of them is a Norwegian man named Karl-Bertil. The documentary appears fairly conventional and curious…until Barbora reveals how she approaches Bertil in court. She asks the heavily tattooed and surprisingly eloquent man if he would like to be her new subject. "I want to paint you," she says, in the kind of dazed voice that seems to suggest that impulse is the cornerstone of her existence. And so begins a baffling and beguiling friendship between an artist and her art – between two souls who, despite belonging to two opposite worlds, seem to represent different colours on the same palette. He thinks it's a scam at first, she thinks he is more than a scam artist. "I stole it because it was beautiful," he admits, inadvertently delivering to her the grandest compliment an artist can earn.
Bertil respects the hell out of Barbora's patience and talent. He has a fertile mind that has been diluted by drug addiction: His passion for art makes him somewhat of a posh outcast. In a moving moment, Bertil breaks down in tears when Barbora shows him his portrait – he can't believe that someone, anyone, would find him so interesting, so detailed, so rich in texture and strokes. He is happy, but also amused: What sort of painters draw petty thieves? Ree then switches perspective. We learn about Barbora, and how Bertil actually sees through her. He understands that she finds him intriguing because he redeems her notions of the violent alpha male – he is intellectual and unmined, unlike her abusive German ex-boyfriend who harmed and almost broke her. She sees in him a chance for her self-destructive tendencies to, for once, elevate her – her toxic fascination with bad boys, except this bad boy is quite nice.
The Painter and the Thief delves deeper than its already-ripe title. It adopts a unique two-pronged structure that seems to hint at how the filmmaker believes theirs to be a love story that eschews the narrative of romance
That the Czech and the Norwegian must converse in English perhaps brings them closer. There's something about Europeans not being able to use their native language with one another (case in point: Victoria) – their shy discovery of each other is reflected in hesitant embrace of a new language. It signifies a desire to communicate beyond their comfort zones, where both start from scratch. In Barbora and Bertil's case, it further amplifies the cultural chasm that they so gamely overcome in service of an unlikely friendship.
But The Painter and the Thief delves deeper than its already-ripe title. It adopts a unique two-pronged structure that seems to hint at how the filmmaker believes theirs to be a love story that eschews the narrative of romance. For instance, for months on end, the camera follows Barbora and frames her as the protagonist. It's like Bertil doesn't exist. Then Bertil appears at her door, stoned and shattered, dumped by his girlfriend. Then the film jumps back to depict Bertil's experiences during those same months – leading up to Barbora's door. Which suggests that two films were being shot simultaneously, with both crews keeping their footage exclusive so that the 'characters' aren't afforded the luxury of using the filmmakers to manipulate each other's presence.
If you think about it, documentary filmmakers and naturalist painters aren't too different from each other. Both reframe time to make the truth look more attractive
The cameras, like wildlife photographers, allow nature to take its course. It's a provocative but shockingly effective style. At one point, we see Bertil in prison asking the camera if Barbora is O.K., because she hasn't been answering his phone calls for weeks. Later we learn that she was going through her own crisis. At another point, we see Bertil drunkenly leaving his place before a near-fatal accident, while Barbora learns of the accident from the TV news and hospital (and not the makers). This nonlinear semi-fictional approach to storytelling frames the two as soulmates who are yet to discover the physical purpose of their connection. It's more psychological than sexual, more kinship than companionship. This approach also eliminates any possibility of the film influencing the fate of two people who draw one another to avoid being drawn to one another.
If you think about it, documentary filmmakers and naturalist painters aren't too different from each other. Both reframe time to make the truth look more attractive. Paintings double up as manual memories, while films reshape memories as moments in progress. Benjamin Ree's The Painter and the Thief is a distinct and riveting confluence of these two artistic mediums. It is simultaneously a timely documentary of a painter and a timeless painting of a documentary. At times, you can't tell one from the other. At times, you're not supposed to.