Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 31, 2020 12:05 pm 
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Art and transgression: a mutual attraction

This is a film that delves into a variety of topics, including the complex sources of artistic inspiration; dangerous attractions; rebirth; and the rehabilitation of a damaged person.

It's a sort of variation on the Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps: to attach yourself to and befriend the person who has wronged you. This is the process that's engagingly chronicled in The Painter and the Thief, a documentary that feels sometimes like a kind of reality television. Barbora Kysilkova is a Czech painter living in Oslo, Norway who does magically realistic paintings of angular, strange subjects. She has an exhibition at Oslo's Galleri Nobel. Two of the most important paintings in the show, one of young girls called Chloe and Emma and another of reeds and a large dead bird called Swan Song, are displayed in windows at the entrance of the gallery. And one night they are stolen. Surveillance camera footage enables the two thieves to be identified, apprehended, and sentenced to 75 days in prison. The paintings are not recovered. In the courtroom, Barbora is magnetically drawn to one of the men, Karl-Bertil Nordland.

Things begin with Barbora asking Bertil to tell her where her paintings are, but he's an addict who was so high he remembers nothing about the heist. But Bertil becmes a kind of muse for Barbora. It doesn't matter to her, or rather attracts her, that Bertil is a troubled addict covered with tattoos that speak of his traumatic youth. His gnarly features, prematurely aged for a man in his mid-thirties, become her subject, his posing for long hours his imposed penance, their time together the beginning of an intense, loving friendship that is clearly troubling to Barbora's nice and stable Norwegian boyfriend, Øystein Stene. Barbora fled from Berlin and came to Oslo to escape an abusive, menacing relationship. Now is she seeking another one? Do artists, especially ones who do surreal, dramatic paintings like Barbora's, need danger and dysfunction in their lives to inspire them? Does she in life, as in her art, seek the wild side?

The unguarded, open-spirited Barbora develops extremely warm feelings toward Bertil, which he seems to return. They really seem to click. Through the course of this risky but for Barbora inspiring relationship Bertil eventually goes through a worse ordeal, leading to a time in hospital and subsequently a longer prison sentence. He goes through a transformation.

Eventually things sort out. Barbora was never a rich or famous artist. Her paintings are great for a movie. If you wanted wild and extravagant looking images for the cinema screen these would be almost too good to be true. But she can't get another gallery to accept her not well known and not at all popularly appealing work. She has trouble paying her rent. At the end there are several dramatic discoveries and major changes.

The Painter and the Thief seems best for simply capturing the basic matter of its title: the encounter of these two balls-out characters. Bertil tells Barbora in an early private meeting that he stole the paintings because they were "beautiful," and when she comes to visit him, his home is full of framed pictures. He is in some sense artistic himself. One should add that he apparently came from a middle-class background, though one in which he was abandoned and traumatized. He used to be a fine carpenter. He has other skills, and did well at school. Trauma led him to addiction and addiction led him to the life of a thug. His rebirth is more dramatic than anything that happens to Barbora. Her transforming effect on Bertil shows when he looks at her first completed painting of him and, feeling "seen" for the first time, bursts into long, uncontrollable sobbing.

It may be harder for her to change. They are both artistic types, in a way, and when you see them chatting and smoking and quaffing coffee together they seem very much two of a kind. What about Øystein Stene, though, Barbora's boyfriend? How does he fare through all this?

This is certainly an engaging film that provides, among other things, glimpses of what being an artist can be like. There is always the question, here more than usual, of how authentic behavior is when there is a third unseen person always present with a camera in the room filming everything that's said and done. The filmmaker, who started as a journalist working for Reuters, is only 30, but he was already known for his 2014 Magnus about the Norwegian chess prodigy and current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlson. He has moved agilely and invisibly, gaining good chemistry with the principals through their shared youth. Structural aspects aren't quite as good as he may have meant them to be: the chronology is somewhat confused; there are lacunae. Presenting the story later on from Bertil's point of view (and narrated in Norwegian: most of the dialogue when Barbora's onscreen being in English), is a strategy that doesn't come off as well as intended or provide as clear a contrast as the director had in mind. But despite these flaws this is an intimate, striking dual portrait of two unusual individuals and brings out the links between art and transgression in some fresh and interesting ways.

The Painter and the Thief, 106 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, included in at least 16 other international festivals including Rotterdam, Zurich and London. US and Canadian internet release May 22, 2020. On multiple internet platforms and free if you have Hulu. Metascore: 79%.

Portfolio of the artist's paintings.



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