• Teresa Xie


The irony in The Painter and the Thief is that while the title of this documentary categorizes one protagonist as a painter and the other a thief, the film actually paints two holistic pictures of these characters, whose labels as “painter” and “thief” do not define them at all.

In 2015, Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova received a call informing her that two of her most famous paintings, Chloe & Emma (left) and Swan Song (right), had just been stolen. Fortunately, security camera footage allowed the culprits to be identified quickly. At the court hearing, Kysilkova approaches the main suspect, Karl-Bertil Nordland, and asks him, “Maybe we could meet some time? Of course, all for the purpose that I’d love to make a portrait of you.” He agrees, not knowing that this would mark the beginning of an unlikely friendship between a painter and her thief.

Perhaps I’m not versed enough in films that revolve around art, but it struck me as uncoincidental that two films involving portrait painting (The Painter and the Thief and Portrait of a Lady on Fire) were released this year, and both received universal acclaim. There is a scene in The Painter and the Thief that I think will resonate with all viewers, and I will never cease to admire director Benjamin Ree for capturing this moment. Barbora reveals her larger-than-life portrait of Bertil to him, and at first, Bertil reacts with a simple wide-eyed look. Then, he becomes devastatingly paralyzed. He struggles to speak and starts grunting and sobbing at the same time, like a child whose mother has just left him. It is clear that this is the first time someone has seen him, and I mean really see him in a way that he has long been afraid to. Bertil self-labels himself as a destructive, drug-addict junkie, whose demon tattoos sometimes sit and watch, but more often than not, come out to play. Similarly in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the painter, Marianne, shows her muse, Héloïse, that she is seen; her shell is not nearly as hard or fitting as she thinks. But, as Bertil says, it is a two way street."She [Barbora] sees me very well, but she forgets that I can see her, too.”

Ree’s non-intrusive style of documentary filmmaking reveals a greater understanding that the relationship between two people is not linear. It ebbs and flows with each person’s vulnerabilities and insecurities, ultimately resting on how much of themselves each person is willing to give. For Bertil and Barbora, it is a lot. While Barbora delves into her trauma involving an abusive relationship and an unstable income, Bertil wants Barbora to see the light in his seemingly dark tunnel. Although the film wavers a bit towards the end, it still maintains the same authenticity that initially engulfed the viewer into this very special, tumultuous relationship. During the film’s most intimate moments (there are many), I was hyper aware of the fact that there was someone else sitting there with them, acting as a mirrored lens for both the viewer and the subjects.

Everyone who watches The Painter and the Thief will take away something different, but I think each person will do some self-reflecting. If you asked Barbora and Bertil to holistically describe each other and then asked them to do the same of themselves, it would seem as if they were talking about completely different people. We often think that the way we define ourselves is who we are, but The Painter and the Thief proves that notion false. Even the way others define us is not who we are. Rather, we are a gallery of our own portraits; the way we paint others, the way others paint us, the way we paint ourselves, that is who we are. While the synopsis of The Painter and the Thief may be an unlikely friendship between an artist and a thief, the film really tells the story of two complete individuals whose paths crossed under a criminal circumstance, but whose lives will forever be changed because of it.

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