Early in Benjamin Rees’ new documentary, The Painter and the Thief, artist Barbora Kysilkova approaches Karl-Bertil Nordland in a courtroom. She knows it’s unusual, perhaps inappropriate, but she has to ask. Nordland, an addict who’s already served several stints in jail, was easily apprehended by Oslo police thanks to surveillance video recording him and an accomplice walking off in broad daylight with two of what we’re told are Kysilkova’s most important paintings, which had been displayed in a gallery window. The works themselves have not been recovered. This is one mystery at the center of the film. Nordland claims to have been so high on amphetamines at the time that he doesn’t remember what he did with the canvases.
But another mystery overtakes this one, almost making us forget about the first. This is the mystery of Kysilkova’s fascination with her trespasser, and his with her, encapsulated in his explanation of the theft. “They were so beautiful,” he says. For her part, before the trial, Barbora has been examining Bertil’s Facebook page with her boyfriend Øyvind, studying Bertil’s shirtless workout selfies, his numerous tattoos, trying to get a read on him. She shows some anxiety about the lost work, but something about Bertil’s presence in the photos, inspires the artist’s interest and amusement. What she wants to know when they finally speak is if she can draw him. This is her punishment, in a sense, whatever the state decides to do, though it’s a sentence charmingly offered as a request, more like a gift.
What Barbora offers, and Bertil comes to embrace, is more than forgiveness. She doesn’t absolve him, in fact, but rather engages with him quite deeply, the two sharing themselves and supporting each other in ways that are hard to fathom, even as we come to understand the self-destructive tendencies they have in common. Despite this darkness, there is real pleasure in their exchanges, a necessary joy. Unsurprisingly, Øystein becomes increasingly suspicious of the connection. Not jealous, it seems, as the relationship developing between Barbora and Bertil is not sexual. It seems more holy, a risky love of recognition that goes beyond simply seeing oneself in another. Maybe we lack a word for this kind of love, a feeling of care for an essential companion that transcends the erotic. The power of this care can be as dangerous as it is liberating, and it sheds new light on the nature of Barbora’s passion as a painter, her work shot through with the distant, allegorical light of Medieval martyrs.
Ree and co-cinematographer Kristoffer Kumar’s verité camerawork is remarkable not so much for its technical expertise. Though the light their work captures is often revelatory, generally the camera feels like a functional device, an afterthought in its seemingly artless witnessing. What makes the cinematography special is the potent intimacy it (and its operators) develop with the subjects, immersing us in moments of love and conflict so presently that we almost feel embarrassed to be caught, physically, in the middle. Our awareness of our presence in these scenes feels akin to the dramatic proximity that’s clearly constructed in fiction films. It verges on feeling false. And then we’re enraptured by Rees’ protagonists’ passion and emotional intelligence, their lack of concern about what we hear or think.
This is never more powerful than when Barbora reveals to Bertil her first portrait of him. It’s unclear if the painting is based on a photograph, as are many of Barbora’s works, or imagined by her from her sketches. Regardless, Bertil is ennobled on the canvas: sharp, pale, in distress, himself and more than this. The real, abject Bertil, sitting on Barbora’s couch, still little more than an addict at this point in the film (in his and our eyes), responds to the painting, at first, with a comic shock. Does he hate it? Does he hate her? Some kind of violence is close by. But his astonishment evolves into a deeply moving display of terror that freezes Bertil in place, eliciting shudders, tears, and a pathetic, animal whine. It is a remarkable encounter with the uncanny, between Bertil and his double, with an empathetic and loving perception rather than a projection or detached idealization, the work of art doing painful transformational work at an individual level. Documenting the difficult, two-way nature of transformative care is a gift that Ree gives us, The Painter and the Thief as instructive as it is a compelling tale.