This thing has a heist, villains with more depth than at first perceived, a struggling artist, and some highly charged chemistry between its two leads. It isn’t a narrative film, but it sure feels like one. Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about two people with an inexplicable draw to one another that weaves their lives together in beautiful and really messed up ways.
Barbora Kysilkova is an artist known for her darkly photo-real oil paintings. Karl Bertil-Nordland is a heroine addict that’s floating in and out of self-destruction. During a bender he breaks into an art gallery where two of her works are hung in an exhibition. Karl takes one, enamored with the imagery, and is later captured after he comes down. Barbora, in a moment of desperation, confronts the man only to discover he was so blitzed that he cannot remember where he hid the painting. As a form of what seems like trauma therapy, the artist asks if she can paint a portrait of him and a strange friendship begins.
I approached The Painter and the Thief with a bit of apprehension, afraid this would be yet another portrayal of the artist discovering their muse in trauma and holding him up as some sort of messianic figure that sparked their creative genius. This is NOT that, instead allowing Kysilkova to be portrayed as obsessive and damaged herself. She’s a fantastic painter, that’s not in question, but her motives and goals begin to blur as she becomes more entangled with the life of Bertil-Nordland. Anyone would, honestly. He’s a much deeper subject than his prison tattoos and edgelord t-shirts would suggest, a man appreciative of art and history even though he has trouble articulating it at times.
Ree’s documentary really kicks off when he allows himself to switch perspectives, giving us the view of Karl. We’ve been allowed to be fascinated by him alongside Barbora, but when he openly states, “She sees me, but she doesn’t know that I see her,” a new view sends the whole thing askew and we’re left watching these two live their lives together. They have significant others on and off throughout the film, but this is less about drama and more about individuals that feel fulfilled by being able to feel naked in front of someone without judgement or pain for the first time. I mean, there’s definitely some drama and hardships, but these are merely steps along the way for two people that come to define their ups and downs by a moment where a man was so addled out of his brain that he meticulously and lovingly stole something because it was beautiful. And yes, “meticulously and lovingly” is what I meant. For those of you who haven’t seen The Thomas Crowne Affair and don’t know that paintings are almost always cut out of their frames…that’s how you usually do it. Karl spent over an hour patiently popping the nails out to completely remove the canvas and not damage the painting. That shit’s wild.
The Painter and the Thief feels like an affair that someone stumbled into, much like Karl and the painting (titled “Swan Song”). Kysilkova was already being documented, but when the robbery occurs and she decides to involve the thief in her life it morphs into something new. The film does answer the question of “just what are these two people to each other,” but it’s only within the final moments and we’re left for hours seeing the love between them and waiting for the penny to drop. At an hour and forty minutes that’s a lot of edging and teasing, but the finale feels perfect.
There’s a lot to love in Ree’s documentary, which is now streaming on Hulu. It’s a fearsome, nakedly sincere story that at times feels so lovely that it almost couldn’t be true. I can’t wait for more people to see this, and I hope you all enjoy it.