I recently wrote up The Biggest Little Farm, a documentary distributed by Neon and streaming on Hulu. Today, another Neon/Hulu documentary: The Painter and the Thief.
The Biggest Little Farm presented a view of nature that was both beautiful and bracing. Close observation of natural processes was shown to be integral to a natural way of farming. But that does not mean nature is ordered in a stable way. Order is nestled, sometimes comfortably and sometimes not, within larger disharmonies in which chaos can be glimpsed.
The vast uncertainties that The Biggest Little Farm suggested relative to the complexities found in nature are visible in The Painter and the Thief relative to the conundrums of human nature–which only makes sense since human nature is, after all, part of nature.
As I wrote here of scholars having a hard time accounting for behavior during the Salem Witch Trials, the most straightforward phenomenology can end in mystery. Erklären is easy; Verstehen is hard.
Facts are often not in dispute. Concerning the film, Vanity Fair has some facts:
After two of her most prized paintings were stolen, Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova came face-to-face with thief Karl-Bertil Nordland in a courtroom. Rather than reprimand Nordland though, she asked him if she could paint his portrait. The unlikely friendship that developed over the following three years is chronicled in Benjamin Ree’s new documentary The Painter and the Thief.
WBUR offers up a fact:
“The Painter and the Thief” follows their relationship for the next three years on a most unexpected trajectory.
And other facts, dealing with redemption, compassion, honesty, theft, and other things. Quick summary: she paints him; he feels “seen” for the first time; they commence a complicated and deep relationship based on their respective dark sides; he struggles to fail and ends up succeeding; their roles threaten to reverse; she comes close to being the one to fall apart but in the end does not. A happy ending, sort of.
Yet these are but facts, decent material for explanation but not sufficient for understanding. How do we wish to understand? And what or whom do we wish to understand?
The painter? The thief?
Or maybe the dyad– the odd and special relationship between the two?
But was that special relationship even possible without the filmmaker? Can the relationship between the two be properly understood without taking account of the presence of a third: Ree, whose own accounts of the making of the film only deepen the mystery of what the film is “about” and how to consider its qualities?
And how do we want to conceive of the lived life into the movie versus the way it is captured, artificially, in the medium of film?
Does the film have a theme? It is maybe about art. Or maybe Art?
And if so what about Art? Its formal qualities? Its redemptive qualities? Does Art carry within it the power to redeem? Or is it mainly a token, a symbolic means by which one person reaches out to another?
And how do we wish to reconcile the naked honesty on display with possible subterfuge and guile? Does the painter have an agenda at the beginning, or even at the end? What about the thief? The film maker?
And can we understand what is going on without a religious frame–specifically a Christian one?
It is worth seeing the film just for the pleasure–if that is the right word–of confronting these challenges. It is quite a Rorschach Test. That slippery quality is evident in the many reviews of the film, which generally agree on the facts but think quite differently on the question of understanding.
The Guardian closes its review with a quote from the film maker that stresses the notion of human intention in interaction:
“The questions I would like to explore here are: what do humans do in order to be seen and appreciated?” said Ree. “And what it takes of us to help and see others.”
The Wrap found it a “chronicle of a truly crazy relationship”, indeed a “downright weird” and “sometimes wacky trip into the messiness of human relationships.”
For WBUR it is mostly about the art.
Ultimately it’s a movie about how art can change people’s lives for better and worse, altering our perspectives of ourselves and the world around us.
For its part Vulture saw things through the lens of the carnal:
The Painter and the Thief is an examination of the intersection between inspiration and self-destruction, and of a rapport so deep and instantaneous it feels like evidence of the existence of a soul. But alongside these elements is always the steady thrum of another question, one that sometimes grows so insistent it seems impossible that everyone onscreen can continue to just pretend it isn’t there: Are these people going to fuck or what?
And then there is the question of the last scene. The Painter and the Thief are mounting her paintings for a show and the camera tracks back on a final image, one of her paintings in the show.
The painting resembles one she is seen working on earlier, of the Thief and his girlfriend at the time. In the earlier painting the girlfriend lies atop him in a pose that suggests a sexual theme.
But in the film’s final image, we see The Painter has placed herself atop the Thief instead of the girlfriend. Is there a sexual dimension here, too? Most likely, given that the Painter portrays herself as partly naked.
You almost come round to Vulture’s carnal interpretation. If they are not going to fuck in the movie maybe they did off-screen, or will consummate things after the show.
But is it about sex? Indeed, is the Thief even alive?
Reviewers had a field day here, too.
Vulture comes back to the art:
The film is a portrait of an intimacy that’s as impressive as it is unsettling, and, as the perfect final image proves, it’s also a portrait of a portrait, put on display for anyone to see — or steal.
WBUR stresses the ambiguity of human relationships:
The film’s note-perfect final shot drifts from our real-life participants to one of Kysilkova’s canvases — illuminating the symbiotic relationship between the artist and the admirers, the seers and the seen, the painters and the thieves.
But is there a religious dimension in there too? We speak of compassion and redemption easily enough in the modern world. But Christ? Less so. Still,
(t)he film’s Christian symbolism is hardly accidental. Beyond being a carpenter, Norland, in a car accident that nearly kills him, gets a wound on his wrist that turns into a permanent scar resembling stigmata. He himself recognizes the similarity. Kysilkova later paints the two of them posed in a pieta.
It is odd in a way that what with all the Christian themes running through the movie that more was not made of religion in reviews. The review linked to above is the only one I could find that spied Christian iconography in the final image, or in the body of the film.
But that is maybe not so surprising given that most cultural discussion takes place within its own cultural framework, one that often poses as universalistic but that is as particularist as it gets.
And now that I mention it . . . are there perhaps other layers in the film that a causal viewing and a scan of reviews might miss?
What about politics? It is hardly front and center in the film but there are bits and pieces of it in there, and it is fair to wonder what they mean.
The Painter and the Thief both have dark qualities that put them at odds with the blithe consumerism at the heart of the West in our age.
The Painter comes from deplorable Eastern Europe. She has fled to Norway under the pressure of an abusive relationship and to pursue her art in a free environment. But you never get the impression she is home in Norway. Her husband Oystein Stene, a well-regarded author and director, is seen as hectoring her for what he sees as her dark obsessions. Why do you do these things? She has no ready answer. One of the few observations made by the Thief of the Painter is that she rejects Western feminism. Really? In Norway? What’s that all about?
The Thief is a stranger in his own land, and his journey can be seen not only in terms of kicking the habit but also one of finding an identity he can be comfortable with in his home country. While an addict he adopted something of a skinhead image, with the long-haired Mohawk pulled back on top of his head and with the sides of his head shaved bare. When he eventually turns his life around he takes a real job but hardly opts to fit in. Indeed he appears to double down on the skinhead look: shaved head with Mohawk, more muscles from a lifting regimen, more tatoos. Here’s his current Instagram page: no overt politics but he’s still got the look.
Early in the film we learn that he has an interest in traditional Norwegian architecture, especially wood-framed churches. We see him later in the film showing off a primitive dwelling fashioned from wood harvested in the forest–very Norwegian. The Painter, in a voice over, says that his favorite movie is Dugma, a film about the commitment of Syrian suicide bombers. She suggests that he could have been a suicide bomber, willing to sacrifice for a cause, but that he could have as easily ended up the Prime Minister.
Terrorist potential with nationalist impulses. You are left to wonder–if you noticed in the first place.
I am not sure the politics of the film cohere into anything intelligible. But the entire enterprise keeps you guessing, and that is one of its main virtues. That, and the powerful emotional impact of some scenes that would be hard to fake.
One scene in particular stands out. About a quarter of the way through the film the Painter unveils her portrait of the Thief to him. I won’t describe the Thief’s reaction. Suffice it to say that if it were acting it would rank as a great performance, one of a kind. I trust it was not acting, and that makes it even more powerful.
It is an odd time in the movie for the emotional highlight. You still have more than another hour to go, and you wonder where in the world the film can go after what you’ve just seen.
But life imitates art, and only imperfectly so. Life’s scripts, ever undermined by circumstance and chaos, do not proceed with the formal elegance of a three act play. And this film, while ostensibly about art, is all about life.