In the opening scenes of Noah Baumbach‘s Marriage Story, a divorcing couple give their perspective on each other in voiceover, tenderly delineating the things they love about their estranged spouses that have nevertheless failed to keep them together. Documentarian Benjamin Ree uses a similar technique to examine an altogether more strange relationship in the fascinating The Painter and the Thief. An artist and the criminal who stole her work become friends as she paints him. At the same time, the filmmaker coaxes their impressions of the other, peering beneath their eccentric artistic connection. Not only does the artist becomes the subject through the lens of Ree’s camera, but her own subject is far from passive: ‘She sees me very well, but she forgets I can see her too.’

Artist Barbora Kysilkova has two of her painting stolen from Galleri Nobel in Oslo in 2015. Although it is only a few days before one of the thieves is tracked down, the paintings are nowhere to be found. The culprit, Karl Bertil-Nordland was four days into a drug binge and cannot recall what he has done with the art. Despite being under the influence, he had taken the time to pull all the nails pinning the canvas to the frame instead of simply slashing it loose. And when asked why he stole the paintings, he replies simply; ‘Because they were beautiful.’

Documentarian Ree is already covering the trial when Kysilkova unusually asks to speak to Bertil directly. Even more unusually, she asks if she can paint him. Perhaps most bizarrely, he readily agrees. It isn’t long before Ree’s unobtrusive camera is bearing witness as Bertil is grilled by the inquisitive artist as she sketches. Her subject opens up to her as if her pencil is a knife and the pair are soon good friends. Bertil’s self-destructive streak is never far away however, and a serious car crash in a stolen car almost kills him. This drives Kysilkova’s husband Øystein to question just what her motives were for beginning and continuing her friendship with the troubled Bertil.

When Barbora begins to paint Bertil we get fully into the themes of interpretation and the differing ways we see and are seen. As an artist, Barbora is hugely talented and seems to see her subject far more deeply than simply as the addict and habitual criminal that most would dismiss him as. In her paintings he seems pensive; eyes averted from her gaze, which captures something more sensitive and bookish than Ree’s camera. But he has been gazing back and his reading of her is just as incisive. It is this section of the film that is the strongest, with Ree capturing a platonic version of the gentle, probing joust between artist and sitter that made Céline Sciamma‘s Portrait of a Lady on Fire such a delight.

There are a few scenes that are so narratively perfect that their documentary authenticity comes across as slightly dubious. The most striking is the moment in which Bertil sees himself immortalised in pigment for the first time. He stares dumbfounded before dissolving into racking sobs. It is a powerful, hugely moving, and incredibly cinematic instance, but a reaction that must have been beyond Ree’s wildest dreams; a moment of raw humanity that instantly vindicates Kysilkova’s instinct as an artist, and his own as a filmmaker. It is also understandable why some viewers of the film apparently have not realised it is a documentary.

It’s unlikely a fictional narrative would lose its dramatic drive toward the end in the way this documentary does however. Ree spends two utterly absorbing acts artfully entwining these two disparate lives together, blurring the line between artist and subject along the way. After his recovery from the crash, and his subsequent year in prison, Bertil’s contact with Barbora begins to drift. Ree focuses on Bertil pulling his life back together, and Barbora’s financial and relationship hardships. There is a definitely sense of a lack in the scenes of them being apart. Unfortunately, this is never resolved, but does give a sense of the level of co-dependency that had been established towards the pair, and it makes you wonder to what extent this may have been subtly manipulated by Ree.

Despite a slightly limp conclusion, The Painter and the Thief is an incredibly engaging documentary that would appear insufferably trite and melodramatic were it to have sprung from the pen of a writer. It isn’t just an assured glimpse into the artistic process, but also the processes of healing, forgiveness and redemption. Tender, compassionate, and emotionally complex, it is a fine piece of art in its own right.

Screening as part of BFI London Film Festival Thu 8 Oct 2020 and in cinemas from Fri 30 Oct 2020