The documentary film “The Painter and the Thief” revisits familiar ideas about unconventional love that has been explored in numerous indie films. The central premise of director Benjamin Ree’s second feature documentary is a bizarre encounter between an Oslo-based painter Barbora Kyslilova, and Karl-Bertil Nordland, an Oslo-based drug addict who was arrested and convicted for stealing a few of her paintings from a museum. The set-up of the film is rather misleading, you believe its going in one direction as you think its about the dichotomy between two vastly different people that hold contrasts in their backgrounds: between an established artiste and a tormented young man. The result is filled with emotional highs and lows about people coming in terms of who they really are.
Ree ends up taking the documentary into fresh directions as the narrative plays out like “Honeyland” where you almost forget you are even watching a documentary because the structure plays out like a narrative film where the camera just observes the drama unfold. The film ends up becoming an engaging and documentary about intellectual love-so atypical in contemporary indie cinema-they are both troubled and isolated souls that hold a deep connection, yet never becomes too intimate or sexual.
On the surface, the situation of Barbora and Karl is movieish (will they become lovers) yet, the film explores in unpredictable matter a unique adventure that is immensely rewarding and deeply moving. The documentary holds a profound truth that artistic creation can indeed hold commonalities to drug addiction, how they both form out of alienation and repressed solitude. The film has the dense texture of many other successful documentaries about troubled and lonely souls, such as “Dear Zachary” and Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” which have obviously made an imprint on the documentary medium. In sensibility, Ree is closer to the documentaries of Michael Andt, who observes events unfold in real time with great emotional impact. Like Apted, Ree brings a an honest and deeply involving vibe to his framework, but the tone is conflicting, just as intimate, and every bit as warm as Apted’s style that is found in his acclaimed “Up” docu-series.
Ree shows with his second documentary feature that he has enough maturity and generosity in exploring the human experience in real fashion. Coming from different backgrounds, Barbora and Karl cannot assume any mutual ground; they often get discouraged from each other, yet Karl becomes an inspiration and rather a muse to Barbora’s paintings–in which they both keep getting pulled towards one other. Throughout the course of their encounters, they have to expose themselves, they talk about their innermost feelings and other insecurities and anxieties they experience. Ree holds the camera on his subjects through artfully and meticulous framed shots, and allows the visual poetry proceed with their internal conflicts and withdraws that his subjects experience.
Karl also has the sensibilities of an artist, as he is very in-tune with Barbara’s feelings, and he reveals his vulnerabilities to Barbora allowing himself to become a vessel for her creations. One of the films most memorable moments are the moments of Barbara and Karl having brief and casual affection towards another that resembles the love in Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love.” Ree is possibly pointing out that their connection goes beyond love, that an artistic union between two people is sacred and rather confidential, though this sends Barbara’s boyfriend to feel very alarmed and concerned. Ultimately, weather their love or bond was ever sexual or not, Ree shows how their relationship is based on the healing power of art.
As a result of Ree’s fondness and delicateness of his subjects, “The Painter and the Thief” offers a tender exploration about the artist and their muse. Why, for instance, do Barbara and Karl have ups and downs in their friendship that is almost replicate of a real relationship? Possibly because their emotional turmoils bring out the worst of them, yet their undeniable collaboration and love for one another also brings out the very best of them. Like most artists, they grow up with much anxieties and suffering, either from a repressive lifestyle or environment (both internal and external) thereby allowing artists to use their voice as a predisposition for their creations.
The most rewarding part of the documentary is the flow and structure of the film. What comes off muddled and disjointed at first, comes to a great surprise as the documentary unfolds. As a result, the film pays off emotionally well in its study on the redemptive nature of art and unexpected friendship.