Benjamin Ree’s moving, intriguing and, at times, fairly baffling documentary turned heads at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Much of the praise heaped upon it lingered on the central friendship at the heart of this unusual story – a seemingly at-odds relationship born from adversity and crime. It is true that there is something undeniably uplifting about the blossoming relationship between an artist and a junkie thief, but it’s a much stranger brew than, I think, most early reviews have credited.
Artist Barbora Kysilkova has a pair of her paintings stolen from a gallery in Oslo; an act of theft which clearly disturbs the artist. Rather than letting the anger at this piece of vandalism consume her, though, she takes the unusual step of confronting, and ultimately, befriending the thief. He is Karl Bertil-Nordland, a junkie in a tailspin and no memory of the entire month the robbery took place.
They form a mutually beneficial friendship from which she draws artistic inspiration and in which he seems to find a grounding influence. On the surface, it’s an elevating story of finding friendship in an unlikely place and the merits of a non-judgemental attitude to one’s fellow man. It is certainly those things, but it’s also a stranger, more troubling beast.
Barbora’s art frequently dwells on difficult subject matter, notably the abuse she suffered at the hands of an ex-partner. Karl has a destructive streak and appears to be, at least partly, institutionalised to a life in prison as well as a victim of a difficult childhood. There appears to be a frisson, too, between them that threatens to develop into something more than just friendship. Not a sexual relationship, perhaps, but a deeper emotional bond that clearly troubles Barbora’s uncomfortable boyfriend. He cautions against pursuing him as her muse, but you sense he finds the situation more than just intellectually or artistically threatening.
It ends with a note of optimism, but also with an ambiguously tantalising flourish: the unveiling of a teasingly suggestive piece of art that celebrates an unlikely friendship, but hints at a deeper, unspoken dimension.