In Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, it is abundantly clear that perception and reality are often two vastly different things. Like an optical illusion painting, the film challenges one to question everything one sees. Rees frequently manipulates one’s view by doubling back and presenting the same scene from a different person’s perspective. This tactic exposes how easily it is to be swayed by what seems straightforward at first glance.
On the surface, Ree’s film has all the trappings of a standard documentary about an art heist. Two paintings by Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova, worth a combined 20, 000 Euros, are stolen from her first solo show in Oslo. The culprits are eventually identified and arrested thanks to security camera footage, however, the paintings remain missing. When Kysilkova decides to confront one of the accused, junkie Karl-Bertil Nordland, something rather unexpected happens.
Rather than relentlessly badger Nordland about the missing art, although she is eager to find them, Kysilkova asks the man to model for her. Frequently meeting at her studio, where she draws him while questioning him about his life, Kysilkova finds an unlikely muse in Nordland. Although there is a darkness to him that goes much deeper than the intimidating “Snitchers are a dying breed” tattoo sprawled across his chest, Kyislkova feels inexplicably drawn to him.
At first Kysilkova’s generosity appears to be the guiding light that Nordland needs to get through the dense fog that surrounds him. However, her platonic attraction to Nordland may say more about her own destructive past than it does his.
Transforming itself with each new brush stroke, The Painter and the Thief constructs a fascinating portrait of a stranger-than-fiction tale of a friendship. Kysilkova’s desire to locate her missing art may be the catalyst that brings them together, however, it is their personal traumas that bind them on a deeper level. Kysilkova and Nordland’s eyes convey a pain that only those who have lived a similar experience can truly recognize.
Ree’s film takes its time exploring the shifting nature of Kysilkova’s inquisitive gaze and Nordland’s skeptical one. By presenting Nordland’s life story from Kysilkova’s perspective and vice versa, Ree’s captures how often the image we present of ourselves is vastly different from what others see. The inclusion of Kysilkova’s partner, Øystein Stene, further emphasizes this sentiment as he provides context to her past that reshapes how one views her present.
Frequently blurring the line between artist and subject, The Painter and the Thief is an absorbing work. Like a piece of art in the gallery one needs to take a step back to fully appreciate the craft that Ree’s puts into his film. One may be aware astutely aware of the artist’s processs, but that does not make the bonds of friendship that The Painter and the Thief paints any less mesmerizing.
The Painter and the Thief is available to stream at Hot Docs from May 28 to June 24