In 2015, two paintings by Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova were stolen from Gallery Nobel in Oslo. The two perpetrators were quickly apprehended and sentenced to 75 days in prison, but the artwork was not recovered. Kysilkova was rattled by the loss, as the stolen paintings were two of her favorites, and she sought out one of the thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland, for answers. An unlikely friendship developed between the two, with Kysilkova eventually making Nordland the subject of several new paintings.
That’s a tidy, heartwarming little story. It’s also only the first 20 minutes or so of the new documentary The Painter and the Thief. Director Benjamin Ree was not satisfied to leave what could have been a cute inspirational short film at an easy stopping point. He continued to follow Kysilkova and Nordland for several years, in the process drawing out complications in both subjects and their friendship.
The Painter and the Thief deftly balances several disparate but not wholly unrelated issues around class, criminality, labor, and ethics, particularly as they relate to the art world. It’s extremely rare to see a documentary focused on someone at Kysilkova’s level, a working artist rather than a known quantity. The theft of her paintings attracted no notice from the press (trying to Google the event will only bring up results about this film). It’s refreshing to see a film deal so bluntly with the actual day-to-day element of art as labor, beyond the basic process of making art or vague ramblings about the difficulties of inspiration. (In one scene, Kysilkova’s credit card gets declined while she’s trying to buy groceries.)
But the movie also demonstrates how Kysilkova, as an educated member of the creative field, is still in a better position than Nordland, whose background experiencing abuse haunts him throughout continued attempts to improve his life. A serious car crash midway through the film nearly paralyzes him, leaving him with an arduous recovery and facing more jail time for driving while intoxicated. As Kysilkova does her best to support him, the movie interrogates just what kind of help is appropriate. She continues to use him as an ersatz muse, and some of her acquaintances question whether she’s exploiting his pain and circumstances. They don’t arrive at a conclusive answer, and the film does not impose one either, leaving us to chew on these issues.
Fitting with its ambiguous subject matter, The Painter and the Thief isn’t content to tell its story straightforwardly. Rees jumps around in time, at one point even employing a lengthy “flashback” when Kysilkova and Nordland reunite after not seeing each other for a while, including the audience in the process of “catching up.” It’s touches like these, along with its delicate sense of emotional intelligence, that set the film apart from documentaries both about the art world and in general.
The Painter and the Thief (2020), dir. Benjamin Ree, will have its digital release May 22.