LFF ’20 — Art Crime Documentary ‘The Painter and the Thief’ is a Flawed Yet Powerful Exploration of Connection


Benjamin Ree’s new documentary moves quickly over the beginnings of the least likely friendship. Czech immigrant Barbora Kysilkova starts to break into the Norwegian art scene with her large oil works, but after an exhibition several of her works are stolen. CCTV footage traces down the thief, but as Karl-Bertil Nordland faces charges in court Kysilkova is more interested in getting to know the man who walked off with her paintings. Not what happened to them — he cannot remember in a blur of amphetamines — but what drove him to take them, and how he ended up a criminal in Oslo. 

The Painter and the Thief is buoyed by this deep, odd tie between Kysilkova and Nordland and the first glance night-and-day contrast between the two figures. Kysilkova is soft-spoken and quietly assured, coming to Norway alone following years of domestic abuse. Nordland’s background is similarly scarred, having fallen into substance abuse and self-destruction after a promising academic future translated into burnout. He cannot say why he took the paintings aside from the fact that they were beautiful, and the raw moment captured when he sees his portrait — painted by Kysilkova during and after their initial meetings — is a testament to the transformative power of art in one’s darkest days. 

In a documentary other than Lee’s, this moment — reached very early in the film — could function as a conclusion, a statement on the arts’ ability to disperse a dark night of the soul. The Painter and the Thief, however, follows Kysilkova and Nordland over three years, long beyond this powerful initial portrait, and does not condense or edit its series of events for dramatic structure. This can make for a slow watch at parts, but this focus on the mundane gives rise to a (sometimes uncomfortable) depth of exploration that sets the film apart. 

The central relationship becomes something far beyond a creative and a fan or an artist and a muse, morphing into an almost questionable co-dependence (certainly in the eyes of Kysilkova’s current partner). Lee and his team do not impose their own terms or labels on the unlikely pairing, but the choice to switch perspectives between Kysilkova and Nordland, moving non-linearly from before their meeting to various points in their relationship, gives both participants ample time to speak about their journeys in their own words. It also gives a realistic sense of a relationship’s development — artist and criminal are many things to each other as their mutual understanding and interdependence grow, and Lee never feels the need to box them for viewers’ ease. 

What may hamper The Painter and the Thief is an almost voyeuristic undercurrent to the depiction of the trauma feeding each party’s co-dependency. In the documentary’s middle section, there is little distance from a debilitating medical emergency, and the depth to which Kysilkova’s and Nordland’s backgrounds are discussed as directly influencing their approach to (painting and viewing) art veers towards the exploitative. Art can be transformative, but the insistence that suffering has bound these two together — notably in Kysilkova’s fascination with Nordland’s story — never feels fully unpacked. While flawed, The Painter and the Thief defies expectations of an art crime documentary, choosing to focus on the unusual connections that can be formed through chance and exploration. It cannot define its boundaries neatly in its run time, but perhaps no relationship can be so contained.

The Painter and the Thief screened as part of the virtual edition of BFI London Film Festival 2020

by Carmen Paddock

Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie

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