When Barbora Kysilkova had two of her paintings stolen from the Galleri Nobel in Oslo in 2015, she never expected to strike up a complicated yet lasting relationship with one of the thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland. Despite being a drug addict, Nordland is also a sensitive soul. When and his partner in crime stole the paintings, they took care to remove the 200 nails that attached them to the wall. When Kysilkova asks why he stole the paintings, he simply replies, “Because they were beautiful.”
What follows feels like the perfect setup for an indie drama and could have been easily sentimentalized. Despite his troubled past, Nordland has a vulnerability that Kysilkova is clearly drawn to. Instead of having him imprisoned, Kysilkova asks that Nordland pay for his crime by letting her paint him. When he beholds the painting, he is moved almost beyond words, and the film could have ended there with perfect emotional closure. Yet this all happens within the first half hour of this 100 minute documentary, and the story only becomes more complex and richer from there.
Director Benjamin Ree decides to follow Nordland and Kysilkova far beyond their initial interactions, emphasizing his focus on the former. His greatest strength is in storytelling and presenting his subjects as full characters. We spend a majority of The Painter and The Thief on Nordland as we see him struggle with his addiction and his tendency towards destructive behavior. It would have been easy to cast Kysilkova as Norland’s savior, but Ree takes care to fully present Kysilkova’s humanity as well.
The best example of Ree’s humane, attentive eye is a scene where Kysilkova and her boyfriend Oystein Stene argue about her role in Nordland’s life. Stene reasonably points out that Kysilkova may be overstepping her boundaries by being too involved in Nordland’s life by letting him stay with them after he has gone through a traumatizing event. Both of them argue passionately for their sides, yet neither comes off as unreasonable or villainous. With The Painter and The Thief, Ree gently pulls the rug out from under his audience with his overwhelmingly humane viewpoint. It starts off almost as a thriller that soon becomes an intimate study of two characters with hidden depths. After the film is over and mystery is resolved, we are left with a strong sense of kinship with both Nordland and Kysilkova. We are so on their wavelength that when we learn of the fate of the second painting of a dying swan, we know exactly what it means to Kysilkova when she discovers it. It feels completely organic to the story even if it is not the most exciting of resolutions. Their relationship becomes extremely intimate. Not in the way that you would expect, but in a much more uplifting way than either of them could have anticipated.