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The Painter and the Thief ★★★1/2

Available: Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, and some independent theaters, such as The North Park in Buffalo, and through Neon's site:

A 21st-Century Love Story

[This review has a spoiler in the last paragraph.]

The setup is short, clear, and electric. Barbora, a talented Czech realist painter, has just opened an exhibit at a downtown Oslo gallery. As security cameras show, two thieves break into the gallery and make off with two enormous canvases they’ve un-nailed from their frames. One of the thieves, an angular young man we later learn is named Bertil, is immediately apprehended but doesn’t know where the paintings are, having committed the crime in a haze of drugs. At the thief’s court appearance—shown in artist’s sketches with audio—Barbora unexpectedly engages amicably with him, and the two develop a relationship. He becomes her model. “I can sit,” he says—words that suggest a willingness to change, as well as his pleasure at being an object of desire.


There’s no predicting where that relationship will go, and that’s the virtue of this unusual, riveting film.


There’s no predicting where that relationship will go, and that’s the virtue of this unusual, riveting film. One imagines Bertil could be a threatening presence; he’s heavily tattooed, self-destructive, a drug addict—and, of course, a thief. But the story doesn’t turn in that direction. Barbora never feels endangered, nor, in Bertil’s presence, do we fear for her.

Models for such unusual relationships include the slaveowner/slave bond and the sado-masochistic attraction, neither of which is particularly helpful here. More relevant is the idea of the therapeutic, which saturates the film—without, somehow, damaging it. At first, Barbora takes on the role of therapist, earning Bertil’s trust with an angelic smile and her desire to understand his feelings and motivations. Barbora’s boyfriend, Øysten, functions informally as her therapist, and the two spar with each other in couples’ therapy. Bertil has therapy sessions while serving his prison sentence for stealing the painting. And Barbora’s art work is for her a form of therapy, especially when Bertil is her subject.


Bertil and Barbora are complex characters, whose dark, self-destructive, curiously parallel pasts may never be fully revealed.


That’s enough therapy to keep Freud busy for a year or two, and it’s to Norwegian director Benjamin Ree’s credit the story does not turn into a mawkish, sentimental stew. Ree doesn’t dwell on the therapeutic, much less lead us to hope that one or both of the protagonists will get “well” or even “better.” Instead, Bertil and Barbora are complex characters, whose dark, self-destructive, curiously parallel pasts may never be fully revealed, their problems never fully resolved. It helps that Bertil has a girlfriend, and Barbora a boyfriend; the very normalcy of these companions grounds the protagonists and allows us to see them as something other than a train wreck waiting to happen. The editing helps too, enriching the story arc with different narrative voices and time frames.

Yet all this pales next to the film’s subtle treatment of the “love story” of Bertil and Barbora—if that’s what it is. Barbora’s interest in Bertil seems real enough, yet her instant and total forgiveness of his theft of paintings she deeply valued—and her unrelenting, beatific attitude of acceptance—raise doubts about how and why she has come to value Bertil. Barbora appears not to waver in her fondness for him, though we discover that she has endured (and perhaps welcomed) an abusive relationship, and has a compulsion to care for others, a curiosity about deviance, and a high tolerance for risk. Bertil’s affection for Barbora is complicated by his neediness: in one powerful scene he is emotionally overcome when her painting of him is unveiled; in another he hugs himself with those long, tattooed arms.

The relationship is also, apparently, affected by social class differences: he’s an underclass criminal (he wears a “Crime Pays” T-shirt), she’s a middle-class artist. But then we learn he was once a good student and—more importantly—his apartment (neither tiny nor awash in dirty dishes) is full of works of art. Barbora’s first painting of Bertil appears to subtly change his appearance, and to modify—and to elevate—his social status in her eyes, and ours.


[Spoiler follows.]


If this were Hollywood, and despite these complexities, we’d be expecting the finale to “make the couple.” It doesn’t happen, thankfully. And that’s likely because “The Painter and the Thief” is a documentary. Barbora is Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech painter recently relocated to Oslo; Bertil is Karl Bertil-Nordland, a thief; and Øysten is Øysten Stene, Barbora’s boyfriend. Director Ree happened upon the story early into Barbora’s and Bertil’s relationship and filmed from there, adding visuals from the security cameras and audio from the court proceedings. The intimacy and authenticity of the relationship between the painter and the thief is undeniable in the film. Yet at times one wonders if, knowing they are part of a documentary in process, they are performing for the camera. That possibility, real though it is, does little to diminish the raw intensity of this remarkable piece of filmmaking.


Date: 2020

Director: Benjamin Ree

Starring: Barbora Kysilkova, Karl Bertil-Nordland, Øysten Stene

Languages: English, Norwegian; subtitled in English

Runtime: 102 minutes

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