The opening moments of Benjamin Ree’s documentary, The Painter and the Thief, almost feel like the beginning of a true crime documentary. CCTV footage captures two men as they break into an art gallery in Norway and steal two large paintings.
However, Ree is not as interested in the crime as he is in what happened next. The director introduces us to the Czech artist, Barbora Kysilkova, whose paintings were stolen and we follow her to the trial of one of the thieves responsible.
Kysilkova feels compelled to attend court because she is haunted by two questions. Why did the two men steal her paintings and what did they do with them? We know nothing of the thief in question and, as a result, are somewhat surprised by his response to her first question: “because they are beautiful”.
This will not be the last time that the documentary wrong foots us.
Frustratingly for Kysilkova, the thief - whose name is Karl-Bertil Nordland - says that he cannot remember what he did with the paintings. Undeterred, she asks him to make amends by allowing her to paint his portrait.
And so begins a fascinating friendship.
The first act of The Painter and the Thief reveals Nordland’s story. He is a deeply troubled man - an addict and a drug dealer with a complicated criminal past. As a result, in the early scenes of Ree’s film, we feel concern for Kysilkova’s safety. While desperate to know what happened to her paintings, Kysilkova understands that she must not “push him too much”.
Kysilkova and Nordland seem, at first, to be poles apart. However, they share a strange and powerful chemistry. As Kysilkova paints (her process is mesmerising to watch), a warm and intimate relationship develops.
Then, in a stand-out scene, Kysilkova shows Nordland the finished portrait. No words can adequately describe his reaction. It is moving and incredibly powerful.
The Painter and the Thief does not only observe Nordland. In its second act, Ree’s film turns its focus on Kysilkova. Nordland explains that, while Kysilkova has been watching him, he has been looking at her. His description of the painter is fascinating - revealing some of her darker, more troubling complexities.
Ree creates a montage of images to visualise Nordland’s insights. Suddenly, we are aware that Kysilkova is observing Nordland, Nordland is observing Kysilkova and Ree is observing both painter and thief.
Indeed, Ree’s presence is felt throughout The Painter and the Thief. While the documentary gives the initial impression of cinéma vérité, this is an obviously ‘directed’ film. The story is deliberately constructed and layered via judicious editing.
During this montage, we realise that we are also watching Nordland, Kysilkova and Ree's interpretation of their story. At this moment we understand that The Painter and the Thief is not only about a strange and unlikely friendship - it is an examination of how we observe others and our need to feel seen.
Ree has long been intrigued by art theft. “I think it’s because of the contrasts,” the director explains. “The socially elevated art industry with a lot of cultural capital meets 'lower-class' criminals with rough backgrounds.”
Kysilkova’s story piqued Ree’s interest and he made contact with her - the story, he says, went on to “blow my mind”. As luck would have it, several important scenes had already been filmed.
“A friend of Barbora had documented her artistic life, taking photos and filming the making of the two paintings that later would be stolen, she had filmed the exhibition and was also there during the trial,” Rees recalls. “So we had the actual audio recordings from the first time Barbora and Karl-Bertil met in court, and Barbora would later do the courtroom drawings of that meeting.”
Ree filmed Kysilkova and Nordland for three years. “For me, filmmaking is about asking intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging questions through observing human behaviour,” he explains. “I hope I have managed to raise some intriguing questions with this film, questions you will think about long after the end credits.”
Mission accomplished. The Painter and the Thief is a gripping, powerful and thought provoking film that inspires debate and lingers long.