TIFF 2020. The Painter and the Thief – a fake observational documentary
The Painter and the Thief, Norwegian-born director Benjamin Ree’s documentary and a Sundance hit (and winner of the Grand Jury Award), is a film that has a premise that is rather more suited to tabloid fiction (and, as we will see, a synonymous structure): artist Barbora Kysilkova spares Karel Bertil-Nordlan, the thief who has stolen her paintings, after he and his acolyte claim that they considered her works to be pretty. His undisguised innocence, doubled by a personality that seems to veer into a sort of macho eccentricity (he’s buckled up with tattoos and lawsuits), fascinates her, which, in turn, makes her want to paint it, to discover his stories. Under their apparent discrepancies (and her middle class sensibility for a delinquent with whom she has otherwise nothing to share), Ree goes deep, trying to annihilate the distances between the two – it’s Pygmalion’s myth, but this time around, it’s facing itself. Thus, it is clear that this transfer, which is observed over the course of three years, is bound to happen at one point, and Barbora will also, in turn, end up revealing her own shadows in front of the camera and of Bertil.
To arrive at this point, what Ree employs, first of all, is a very amalgamated visual arsenal, which has omniscient ambitions: he uses previous footage of Barbora’s exhibitions, security camera footage of the theft, the painter’s drawings of the moment when she meets the thief (which is also recorded on sound and is juxtaposed with her memory of their meeting at the trial, in a sort of diorama). This omniscience stretches far beyond what Ree could ever reach – he records all sorts of moments that seem more or less staged (or, at the very least, to be reenacted for the camera), he sneaks into Bertil’s prison cell, in his journey towards detox, in a breaking and entering of Barbora’s, in her fight to pay the rent, and so on. Obsessively recording any important event in the two’s lives, Ree doesn’t ever leave the impression that something might slip away from him, that he has ever put the camera down for a moment – the film seems to be completely voided of any improvisation or of the sensation of a life that is lived beyond the screen.
Usually, such a documentary involves rendering the camera’s involvement visible – as it’s an integral part of the plot, and the director’s voice is felt (and sometimes even heard); it’s a transfer that also implies making the process more transparent. One thing that cannot be detracted from Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not is precisely this – that Pintilie feels that she must also offer something and that, along with her characters, she also unveils herself in a more or less fictional manner. Ree, on the other hand, doesn’t do this – rather, he constructs a false world in which the camera does not exist. The Painter and the Thief is not, however, an observational documentary – the director uses editing to create plot points, false tracks, flashbacks, and suspense – and, as proof, any spectator, without having previously read that they’re watching a documentary, could easily remain with the impression that they have seen a fiction film. This is an important observation: in such a film, which strives to create emotion and toys somewhat with human perception, you can never leave the impression of a fake. For example, the information that Barbora had searched for the other thief and had interrogated him about the incident, only to discover the stolen painting, later on, is presented towards the end, so that the spectator discovers it at the same time as Bertil, as if it were a grand plot twist.
The problem with such an approach (which isn’t one of ethics, since documentary film hasn’t been a purist and immovable form for a long time – just look at Pierre Perrault’s cinema-verite) is that, from a certain point onward, it can no longer construct emotion, and a spectator will then become focused on all sorts of administrative strands (for example, how could Barbora have entered the house of a stranger, without that person being home, and with a film crew following her?) – and, from this point of view, Benjamin Ree’s grand project is also a grand haze.
The Painter and the Thief was included in this year’s What’s up, Doc? festival section and can still be watched on the TIFF Unlimited platform.