Only the most fascinating documentaries can entice you through shock, dilemma and suspicion, with an honest state of reality, all amalgamated into one. Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and The Thief is so beautifully intricate that it would be fair to ask for a break half-way through, just to let everything soak in. In terms of complexity, this sits with Barbora Kysilkova (the Artist) and Karl-Bertil Nordland (the Thief), whose labels there are literal but that doesn’t account for this unpredictably compelling story that delves into their lives, their developing friendship and how it all came to be.
Opening with Barbora painting, finishing her work, and having it on display at an Exhibition – and importantly in the window of an Art Gallery – we then cut to CCTV footage and watch two guys breaking into the back of a shop and stealing paintings. It all seems very precise, they don’t seem to be opportunistic, as they wipe down their fingerprints and pretend to be garbage disposal men. This feels like it was planned out.
But here’s the first twist of many, one of the thieves is the Karl-Bertil Nordland, who is caught by the Police and says he’d stole it because he was high and transfixed by it. The case goes to court and during this process Barbora approaches Karl and asks him to pose for her, so she can paint him and… he agrees. Her plan, it seems, is to portray him with her astonishingly impressive ‘realist’ style (of which you’ll learn) but she also ask questions about his life, about why he stole her painting and – most importantly – where he hid painting ‘Swan Song’, because it’s still missing. And here’s the next thing, he just doesn’t recall because he was off his head on drugs.
What develops is her interest with his life, he’s clearly an addict in some form – another thing which you’ll learn more about – but they continue to meet, he’s fascinated by her work and she is addicted to him. What then develops is a deeper relationship, where truths are shared, he talks about becoming a criminal, how sad his childhood was and how it’s turned to habits, loss and emptiness. So, while Barbora continues to try and find logic, it begins to suggest there might not be any but, all along, you feel like something else is going beneath the surface. His stories are true, right? Her motives are clear, plausibly? One thing is true though, she continues to paint him because she can’t resist.
While their relationship drifts between victim, robber, artist and muse, alongside clear indications of self-destructive circles in both their lives, it takes another flip when you start questioning Barbora’s intentions, instead of Karl’s. While she seems in control of the situation, over time you learn more about Karl, he asks the right questions and reveals his life before addiction consumed him. You can sense his analysis, especially when revealing “She sees me but forgets I can see her as well…”
So, while one story is us believing he’s just a thief, we then see Barbora and her relationship with her boyfriends, as well as a horrible past. The questions continue to come in your head because now all the preconceptions you had about him turns towards “Is it her obsession, or his?” She seems to live off pain, as much as he does, but hers inspires her painting. She’s in love with the ‘aesthetic of the suffering’ and we begin to understand that she also has demons to fight.
So while The Painter and The Thief is a very human story at its centre, it can occasionally be frustrating to watch, such is the depth of an Artist and her misunderstanding of her personal issues – which is also an ongoing battle for Karl – but on the other side of the glass, you can’t say you haven’t really been in this place yourself, which is what might make it so compelling. Director Benjamin Ree captures events with a natural approach, letting the camera sit in the situation, watching things as they play out with brutal honest, alongside a fitting melancholic score by Uno Helmersson.
It’s all strangely inspiring, occasionally disturbing but most of all, completely addictive. And, even at the end, there’s one more surprise and story hidden away amongst the rest. This really is a gigantic story of two lives surprisingly entwined with added twists of fate and synchronicity, creating outcomes that without these two meeting, may not have happened at all. The Painter and The Thief is stranger than fiction and more curious than the realms of life itself. I don’t even know how you’d find a story like this, it’s astonishing.