London Film Festival 2020
Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova had quite the unusual reaction to having her paintings, worth around €20,000, stolen from a gallery in Oslo. While the average person might be devastated, Kysilkova was intrigued. Why would anyone steal from her, a modestly successful painter who had just moved to Norway with her boyfriend? Determined to get her work back, she attends the court case of one thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland. Upon seeing him, she is instantly struck by his nature. Would he be so kind as to pose for her?
This unusual move is standard procedure in the world of The Painter and The Thief, an unflinching documentary constantly bending the rules while shifting perspectives. From the opening scenes, for example — clinical CCTV footage of the two thieves rolling up the painting and making off with it, as well as the revelation that they took out 200 individual nails to complete their theft— one might expect Nordland to be a professional art thief. This is far from the case: while caught up in gangland crime, he claims to have stolen the painting while under the influence of drugs and simply because he thought it looked beautiful. He can’t even remember where he left it. Don’t expect any Goldfinch-style deep dive into the world of international art dealing here.
Even stranger is their relationship together. The empathetic and curious Kysilkova is drawn to Nordland’s darker side, constantly asking him about his troubled upbringing. Perhaps Kysilkova, in using him for her art, is also stealing. Suffering from the effects of abuse herself, perhaps she sees a kindred spirit in this man, and by painting him, she is working through her own issues. Together they create a fascinating portrait of co-dependency that is as touching and thought-provoking as it is downright odd.
Things take a left-field turn once Nordland is put in prison for a different crime. With a sleight-of-hand in the final act that evokes Orson Welles’ art-con classic F for Fake, The Painter and The Thief tries to combine both character study with an enigmatic puzzle-game. This undermines the message of the film somewhat, taking a strong two-hander on its own merits and forcing it through the non-linear narrative ringer. This is especially true given the style of the movie, which remains mostly unobtrusive, with the personal perspective of the filmmaker remaining crucially untold.
Nonetheless, there is a lot to love here — both in its upending of expectations and its non-judgemental exploration of drug dependency, as well as the way processing tragedy can lead to far more interesting art than what has come before. It serves as a reminder that non-fiction, by its very focus on real lives, can often lead to a stranger and more complex results than any scripted drama could dream of. While not the most affecting documentary I’ve seen in 2020 — that honour goes to Little Girl— I’ll be hard-pressed to see another documentary that’s quite as strange and ambitious as this.