In 2015, a pair of thieves broke into an Oslo art gallery in broad daylight and stole two hyperrealist paintings by the Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova. It was reported on Norwegian news as a brazen heist by master criminals, but the thieves failed to spot CCTV cameras and were soon arrested. The ringleader, a heavily tattooed heroin addict called Karl Bertil-Nordland, was put on trial. In court, Kysilkova walked over and asked him why he stole her paintings. There’s an audio recording of his answer: “Because they were beautiful.” She invited him to pose for a portrait – after he got out of prison.
So begins this astonishing, emotionally electric documentary about the unexpected friendship between artist and thief. In her studio, while painting Norland, Kysilkova grills him about the whereabouts of her missing paintings. He insists he can’t remember what he did with them; he was totally wasted at the time. Norland is intelligent and charismatic with a self-destructive streak that goes back to a traumatic childhood. But he’s not afraid to show his feelings. There’s an extraordinary moment when he sees Kysilkova’s portrait of him for the first time. Raw with emotion, he weeps, trembling. The expression on his face says it all: “Finally, I have been seen.”
You suspect that at some point during the four years filming the documentary, director Benjamin Ree’s camera became part of the furniture, practically invisible. This film is so intimate. Interestingly, after 40 minutes or so, Ree switches perspective from painter to thief. “She sees me very well, but she forgets I can see her too,” says Nordland. Perceptively, he talks about Kysilkova being drawn to his dark side. We also learn that she recently escaped a violent relationship.
Another voice here is Kysilkova’s boyfriend Øystein. In couples’ therapy he worries about her, describing her tendency to take emotional risks, like a child playing in traffic. What an engrossing film – and the gender reversal of a male muse inspiring a female painter has got to be one small step for art-world equality.