‘The Painter and the Thief’ Film Review: Art Heist Documentary Gets Downright Weird

The story of an artist who recruited the man who stole her paintings to pose for her, Benjamin Ree’s film is a fascinating, perplexing, occasionally annoying chronicle of a truly crazy relationship

Barbora Kysilkova doesn’t trust Karl-Bertil Nordland, a junkie and thief who steals two of her most significant paintings from an Oslo art gallery in 2015. Nordland doesn’t trust Kysilkova, who must have ulterior motives when she approaches him in a courtroom and asks if he’ll pose for her. And viewers probably shouldn’t trust Benjamin Ree, whose film about Kysilkova and Nordland, “The Painter and the Thief,” is filled with feints and withheld information and suspiciously intimate access to its subjects.

But maybe trust is overrated, because “The Painter and the Thief” is a fascinating, perplexing, occasionally annoying but always involving chronicle of a truly crazy relationship.

Filmed with restraint but also ready to get weird when the situation calls for it, Ree’s second feature (after 2016’s “Magnus”) is a meditation on seeing and being seen and on the relationship between artist and subject (or muse), but also a sometimes wacky trip into the messiness of human relationships.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was picked up by Neon, the company that distributed “Parasite,” but its premiere on May 22 will take place mostly on Hulu, with some virtual cinemas and drive-ins thrown in as well. That’s the new normal – as is the fact that because it screened at Sundance and was chosen for several other festivals, it’s now eligible for the documentary Oscar.

“The Painter and the Thief” starts with the painter, Kysilkova, a Czech-born artist whose work is more dramatic than her sales. At a gallery show in Oslo, where she lives, two paintings on display in the front window are stolen by a pair of thieves, with the theft recorded by security cameras and one of the thieves quickly identified as Nordland. Although Ree had yet to begin making his movie, he has film of Kysilkova painting one of the stolen works, as well as the security-cam footage and what seems to be an audio recording of the artist approaching Nordland in the courtroom and asking him if he’ll pose for her.

Wary and suspicious but also feeling guilt over the theft of paintings he says he stole “because they were so beautiful,” Nordland begins spending time at Kysilkova’s flat and studio, where Ree’s cameras are ubiquitous but unmentioned. (Let’s just say that the subjects are very, very comfortable with a cameraman observing extraordinarily raw moments, never giving the slightest indication that they’re aware of his presence.)

Kysilkova says she wants to understand Nordland’s state of mind during the theft, but he dismisses that line of inquiry with a brusque, “How can you understand a junkie that’s been awake for four days and has taken 20 grams of amphetamine and eaten 100 pills?”

If she can’t get the explanations she’s after, Kysilkova is nonetheless fascinated by this tattooed career criminal, perhaps to the point of obsession. (“The moment I met him in the courtroom, I really kind of fell in love with this guy,” she’ll later confess to her husband, who is not necessarily thrilled by this information.) And Nordland seems to be good for her art: The first painting she does of him is a powerful work that reduces him to tears, then to sobs as he confronts the evidence that someone actually sees and wants to understand him.

Of course, that cuts both ways. “She sees me very well,” Nordland tells the camera. “But she forgets that I can see her, too.”

The painter and the thief embrace each other in many ways, but they also circle each other warily, hypersensitive to ulterior motives. As the story goes on, Ree jumbles the chronology and doles out crucial information sparingly; the film, which starts out austere and beautiful, grows increasingly unruly and messy, as does the story — and, of course, as do human emotions.

At one point, Nordland heads for rehab with his girlfriend, only to stop to buy heroin on the way. (The camera, is filming all of this, though somebody puts a hand over the lens when the deal goes down.) His girlfriend throws him out, he never gets to rehab but goes to Kysilkova’s place instead, and eventually ends up in the hospital after a car accident, facing jail time as his body is held together with three long screws through his broken hips.

But the hip injuries aren’t what fascinate Kyslikova, who becomes fixated on a wound on his hand, which she likens to Christ’s stigmata. At this point, Nordland starts to seem like the more clear-eyed, perceptive one in this friendship, while Kyslikova is enthralled and besotted by his darkness; as he grows cleaner and more stable, she increasingly seems desperate.

In the latter stretches, the movie gets more confusing, which is deliberate – but it also drags more, which is not. And that’s when we learn that there’s a whole other side to this story that Kysilkova hasn’t told Nordland and Ree hasn’t told us, although his camera seems to have been along every step of the way.

There are more twists in store, including a creepy and haunting final one. By the time this twisted and artful chronicle ends, it’s hard not to think back to an earlier exchange, when Kyslikova responds to Nordland’s idea of getting a fast motorcycle and hitting the highway by saying, “That sounds like a very strange idea.”

And maybe it does – but hey, “The Painter and the Thief” is built on very strange ideas.

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