Thursday 29 October 2020

Mixed media: "The Painter and the Thief"

Yanked from the "when worlds collide" file, Benjamin Ree's documentary The Painter and the Thief offers an altogether sobering lesson in human nature. The painter of the title is Barbora Kysilkova, Czech-born but Norway-based, first seen enjoying a small triumph with a show of her darkly shaded canvasses at a gallery in Oslo, where she lives with her husband Øystein. The show was prematurely halted when two thieves broke into the gallery - Ree has the CCTV footage - and made off with a couple of the most prominent works. Surprisingly, Kysilkova reached out to one of the thieves, Karl Bertil-Nordland, during the trial, with an eye to discovering the whereabouts of the still-missing paintings; Bertil-Nordland insisted he was in a drug-fuelled haze at the time of the crime and thus retains no memory of where the artworks went. Nevertheless, he agreed to sit for the painter, firstly in a "Fat People Are Hard to Kidnap" T-shirt, later in a shirt bearing the legend "Crime Pays". Even a Norwegian parole board would peg his chances of rehabilitation somewhere in the vicinity of 10%. Ree set his camera up in Kysilkova's studio for the duration, serving both as stenographer and safeguard, and noting a growing bond forming between dreamy artist and light-fingered muse. In a voiceover full of the best liberal intentions, Kysilkova admits she can easily imagine her latest subject as either a suicide bomber or a future Prime Minister: to her, Bertil-Nordland presents almost as a lump of clay, to be moulded and made pliable, perhaps so she can push her thumbs in and extract the info she wants. We shouldn't be too amazed that things got as sticky as they did.

Other elements here are more surprising, though it's best I leave you to discover those for yourself. You need only be aware going in that Ree befriended both parties, which allows him to cut between perspectives, and show us what Bertil-Nordland was getting up to on those afternoons when Kysilkova wasn't arranging him into poses on her chaise-longue. We're drawn into two worlds simultaneously: that of the boho dauber whose goodness extends to laying flowers on an unmarked grave, and the far less settled milieu of the junkie-thief who refers to himself as "The Bertiliser", has clearly been badly hurt at various points in his life, and has emerged from that with an enduring need for the kind of stimulation that can only be found on the streets. (Going out for what proves a fateful drive, Bertil-Nordland confesses a desire for "a couple of kilometres of thrill".) The quiet observation allows us to notice how blithe the painter's phone calls are to the thief, and the mobility even a relatively penniless artist takes for granted. Ree positions himself as a midpoint between worlds, a third party who sees two friends getting into something, senses it may make for bumpy travel, but feels compelled to stick around - if only to try and keep everybody safe. He's in it for the long haul, to his credit: we'll see not just the shape of a portrait, but several lives change. Yet he's judicious about what he enters into evidence, which may raise a few eyebrows. It struck this viewer as curious that Øystein - Kysilkova's bedrock after an earlier, abusive relationship - is kept offscreen after his introduction; but clearly Ree wanted everyone to get in too deep before attempting any kind of intervention. This is a documentary that requires viewer patience - its circling round is that a painter undertakes before committing to making a decisive mark - but once Ree applies the first splashes of harsh, bracing life experience, you will want to know how this portrait turned out. I offer this not so much as a spoiler but by way of reassurance: it's better than I was expecting around the halfway mark. People have a funny way of working things out when they have to; it's one of the few sources of hope we have left.

The Painter and the Thief opens in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream, from tomorrow.

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