Monday 29 November 2021

Streaming on Amazon Prime - Janice Tong reviews THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF /KUNSTNEREN OG TYVEN (Benjamin Ree, US/Norway, 2020)

Bertil and Barbora - during the first meeting when she is 
asked to do his portrait

The visible and the invisible, the seen and unseen. There’s a continuous slippage between the two, because in truth, nothing is as clearcut as we’d like to make it out to be, ever.

For me, The Painter and the Thief can only be seen a labour of love by director Benjamin Ree, who worked on this film for many years. He is both director and cinematographer. And his use of mixed footages was a clever one. Some of these were retrieved from friends of Barbora’s who had filmed her painting the stolen works; TV reports as well as court transcripts. He was also able to incorporate an actual taped session from the first meeting of Barbora and Bertil during an intermission in court and CCTV footage. All this provided texture to the story. 


The interleaving of the two characters, their separateness, as well as the interactions. The film begins with more of a focus on Barbora and the theft, until Bertil opens up.  Ree also wanted to tell his side of the story. That added different dimensions to the overall experience. The final film brings to bear a celluloid fabric that is both palpable, as though we’re located in the centre of Barbora and Bertil’s worlds, as well as cinematic. 

Bertil in the hands and eyes of Barbora


Ree’s captivating journey explores what it is that fascinates a person, what attracts a person enough for them to want to get close to another. In the process, we wonder whether this ‘getting closer to’ is ever going to be successful or even possible in the philosophical sense. Think Merleau-Ponty- the intertwining of the subjective and the objective body, where sight is, in and of itself, already coded and therefore ambiguous; the mere act of looking is already an approach to the object. And yet, we are both subject and object; a hand can touch and be touched. I found myself thinking about this question throughout the film: is it possible to reveal what is invisible, in other words, is the disclosure of truth, or an understanding of the other, ever possible? 


There are so many revealing moments captured between Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova, the ‘painter’, and Karl-'Bertil' Nordland, the ‘thief’. Those moments are raw as well as rare in a documentary, at times uncomfortable, and yet, completely natural.  The camera did not intrude, we are in Wiseman territory: we are but a fly on the wall, we are in the room with both the painter and the thief. 

The Gallery and window from which the paintings were stolen


The one scene that I recall well is when we are treated to Bertil’s voiceover through a montage sequence of their interactions. He says “She sees me very well. But she forgets that I see her too.” It is that moment of relevation, the hand that touches can also be touched. It is not just the painter who sees, but the thief too, sees. Another layer is added; we are not just seeing the surface of things (what is shown on the canvas), in fact, Barbora’s paintings push through the surface to reveal an essence. We know this because we are in the frame when Bertil sees his own portrait for the first time; the shock on his face says it all, his disbelief that someone was able to really ‘get’ him, and not just be his friend, but was able to see past the tattoos and the stigma of being a thief or a ‘bad boy’. 


Later there’s a lovely painting Barbora does of his injured hand from a car accident that almost killed him. It reminded her of Christ’s hands. Bertil is also stigmatised by society. We realise that Bertil is fragile and self-destructive rather than dangerous. When he was first asked by Barbora why he stole her paintings, he replied that it was because they’re her “masterpiece”. And you can tell that he has enormous respect for her work because he took the pain of removing the 200 nails that fastened the painting to the frame, (which would have taken a long time during a heist), rather than simply cutting the canvas off the frame as per the usual practice of art thieves. 


One of the stolen paintings

Whilst the film starts off with a heist of two of Barbora’s most important paintings (those made when she moved from Berlin to Oslo to begin a new life), and they were stolen in broad daylight from the front display windows of a gallery. The story that follows eclipse the premise. And the arc of Bertil, from being the thief to finally getting out of jail and building a life for himself is interesting and complex. Barbora stayed the painter, or rather, the artist that she is. I also thought much about the multi-dimensional relationship she must have with her partner, Øystein Stene, that remained largely off-screen. 


This brilliant film does perform a sleight of hand at the end, but one that I did not mind at all for the engrossing story we are treated to, of two seemingly very different people who are in fact much more alike than we first realised. Through Ree’s lens, these variable traces of differences and similarities, of the seen and unseen, are brought mesmerisingly to life on screen. 


The Painter and the Thief  is currently showing on Amazon Prime.

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