Movies like Topkapi and The Thomas Crown Affair would have you believe that art thieves are glamorous aesthetes who commit their crimes because of their love of beauty, to say nothing of the planning and execution of a smooth, bloodless heist. In reality, art thieves tend to be grubby criminals who only see dollar signs when they look at artworks and don’t realize that stolen paintings become too famous to unload. Benjamin Ree’s documentary The Painter and the Thief gives us an art thief who is both of these and a lot more things, which accounts for its compelling power. It’s streaming on the Grand Berry Theater’s platform this week, one of the venue’s new titles from Neon Releasing, the same outfit that released Parasite.
The film begins with a montage of Czech artist Barbora Kysilková painting “The Swan Song” in her studio, a large oil work on canvas of a swan dead in the grass. That is immediately followed by security camera footage of Karl-Bertil Nordland and an accomplice stealing the work and another of Kysilková’s paintings off the walls of the Gallery Nobel in Oslo, taking care to dismantle the frames rather than cut the paintings out of them as most thieves do. A former BMX racer and master carpenter, Nordland shows up at his trial as a heroin addict and career criminal who was so strung out during the theft that he can’t remember where he hid “The Swan Song.” Kysilková approaches him at the proceeding and asks him (in English, the language she uses in her adopted country) if she can paint his portrait when his prison term is up.
Nordland (or “The Bertilizer,” as he calls himself in a jaunty email) is a fascinating case who weeps uncontrollably when he first sees Barbora’s initial portrait of him as a bespectacled man in a clean white hoodie reaching into a wine glass. Karl-Bertil himself tends to favor t-shirts with slogans on them (“you are stronger than you think you are” and “Crime Pays”). Among his many tattoos is one across his chest that reads “Snitchers Are a Dying Breed” [sic]. His sense of humor even manifests itself after a crime spree that lands him back in prison. After leading the police on a car chase that leaves him with a shattered pelvis, he posts an X-ray of the metal pins in his body to Facebook while quoting the lyrics to “Hips Don’t Lie.” Prior to that, we see how bad his addiction is when he stops to buy heroin on his way to a rehab clinic. Ree’s camera crew is there recording it. So is Karl-Bertil’s girlfriend, who is furious and leaves him soon afterwards.
For Kysilková’s part, she is no detached observer. Her large, photorealistic portraits in oil frequently reflect her turbulent inner life. When Karl-Bertil takes over the film’s narration, he notes that her paintings are too dark to have much commercial appeal. One of them depicts a real-life incident of her being punched in the face by her ex-boyfriend. Her Norwegian husband Øystein Stene emerges as a voice of reason here, noting that some tormented part of her character is causing her attraction to this broken man who demonstrates a talent for art himself and was on track to be a teacher of special-needs kids when he was a student.
Ree’s narrative skips backwards and forwards in time, and he is guilty of withholding key information about our protagonists to amp up the drama. Still, I rather like his handling of Barbora’s attempted recovery of “The Swan Song,” which relies on her own detective work and is treated as an anticlimax. When she has an exhibition at the Gallery Nobel of her multiple portraits of Karl-Bertil, it comes with one hell of a story. So does this movie.
Starring Barbora Kysilková and Karl-Bertil Nordland. Directed by Benjamin Ree. Not rated.