Sundance 2020: “The Painter and the Thief” Finds Activity in Passivity

Painter and the Thief Photo: Sundance Institute

Benjamin Ree documents the budding, murky friendship between a painter and the man who stole her painting.

A few years ago, Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova had two paintings on display in Oslo. It was something of a break for the artist, whose lifelong curiosity of death and nature didn’t quite fit the descriptor of “gothic.” It was a little too clean for that, but it was hers and it made her a few dollars. Then it was stolen. The question of who didn’t last long as Karl-Bertil Nordland was caught on the security footage, and while the drug-addled robber couldn’t remember much of the robbery, it didn’t really matter to the painter.

Instead, she approached him. She wanted to paint him, to hang out with him. She whipped up another piece to help fill what was lost, and thus began a relationship between the two. One might call it codependent, even, the way he cries at the sight of his face on the canvas. One might call it careless, the way it quickly pushes away his girlfriend. But in The Painter and the Thief, it doesn’t necessarily feel romantic or precisely sexual. That would require some sort of passion.

Rather, Benjamin Ree, returning with his first film in four years, understands passivity. The activity through passivity, that is. “She sees me very well, but she forgets that I can see her too,” Nordland says at one point. And it’s just that: moral ambiguity, the lack of emotional payoff, the feeling of memories freezing over and thawing back out. They are, through their respective histories, tailor-made to be each other’s shadow.

But like how The Painter and the Thief immediately squashes the idea of this being a procedural tale, it also removes itself from what another filmmaker may probe into. It leans into Kysilkova’s approach instead, which is anthropological at its closest. There’s something deeply animalistic about such a game, but the flips between her and his perspective humanize them without getting too close.

It’s tantalizing like that. Uno Helmersson’s score is light with its synths and composition, but it’s a trail of bubbles to the spine given how sparsely he and Ree use it. The editing is languid and even more so combined with the direction, and if it weren’t for the split structure, it might even be a bit taxing. It can feel a bit aimless at points, but that isn’t to say it’s arduous.

It can feel a bit aimless at points, but that isn’t to say it’s arduous.

Because why should there be an aim? As they reveal their mental states and observe each other’s, it becomes clearer in its opacity, hinting at—but never specifying—a Jungian tint to it all. A paucity of progress can feel both valuable and for naught, but Ree isn’t going to lead anyone on, here. Nothing he or his subjects reveal implies a complete resolution.

That might be why its swings and pacing can work to its detriment, then. The Painter and the Thief revises its focuses as its subjects’ interests change. Some point slap on a preponderance of story development as if to tie up its loose ends. Others, worse yet, might be enough to pass a viewer by if they so much as blink at the wrong time. For a Rorschach relationship like this, Ree’s film can get pretty close to its convictions. At least it never goes all the way. At least it manages to turn the answers into what might as well be another beginning.

The Painter and the Thief is playing in the World Doc section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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