(The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs September 7-17 and HtN has tons of coverage coming your way! Check out M.J. O’Toole’s movie review of The Peasants. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
So much of life can change within four seasons. That’s what happens with the people of a 19th-century Polish village in DK Welchman & Hugh Welchman’s The Peasants. Following up on their groundbreaking animated achievement Loving Vincent, the husband-and-wife directing duo ambitiously adapt Władysław Reymont’s Nobel Prize-winning novel to provide insight into a unique culture during a time period where reputation and staunch beliefs overpowered individuality and personal freedom. Made over the course of four years, The Peasants feels bigger in scope compared to its predecessor Loving Vincent, but it enters more grim territory. What results is a captivatingly sensuous and tragic tale with visuals that demand you see it on the biggest screen you can find. You’ll be stunned to learn this film was first filmed in live action, then over 40,000 frames of oil paintings made over them. Each frame oozes with passion, and not a single one is wasted.
When the film opens, we get acquainted with the people of the quaint, sunny village of Lipce. From the gossiping women to the brutish men, everyone is settled into whatever roles that society and customs have laid out for them. One individual though, who isn’t willing to conform is the enchantingly voluptuous Jagna (a beaming Kamila Urzedowska), whose beauty makes her the talk of the town. If they could see beyond her looks, she has a talent for making sublime paper cutouts. She also has a love for both nature and animals (e.g. caring for an injured stork). She embarks on an affair with Antek (Robert Gulaczyk), a married farmer slightly older than her who’s one of many men coveting her. It is a lustful, stirring bond that’s sparked in a moment when Antek helps Jagna carry crops through a heavy rainstorm. Even though they yearn to be with one another, it won’t be hard for the viewer to surmise that the road to happiness isn’t simple in such a time period and place.
Antek frequently butts heads with his father Boryna (Miroslaw Baka), the wealthiest farmer in town and its informal leader who is not willing to give his inheritance to his son until he is in his grave. A widower, Boryna is constantly pushed by the mayor (Andrzej Konopka) and his wife (Sonia Bohosiewicz) to marry again. And who would make a better wife for him in the village’s eyes than…you reluctantly guessed it: Jagna. As soon as he proposes marriage by sending a bottle of vodka (an old tradition), Jagna is encouraged to accept, despite her misery towards the matter. The wedding itself is somber but becomes enthralling with an immersive, electrifying dance sequence that includes well-executed POVs from the dancers themselves. The blood-boiling and stubborn Antek is, of course, far from happy about the situation. It isn’t long before he and Jagna will continue their affair, despite the increased scrutiny. Things soon take a turn for the worse.
The sublime animation under the Welchmans’ direction not only accentuates the ensemble’s powerful performances but also brings a surreal beauty to the elements of nature, almost making them a character of their own. Outside of the complicated love triangle, the film segues over to the lives of some of the other villagers, notably Antek’s long-suffering wife, Hanka (Sonia Mietielica) who is more exasperated at her husband’s stubbornness and apathy in supporting their family than his affair. The way the film provides a higher sense of humanity for these characters, rather than just highlighting their shortcomings, is what helps give the story more depth. As for Jagna, the path she goes down after a series of unfortunate events is reminiscent of films such as Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves and David Lean’s much underappreciated Ryan’s Daughter, both surrounding naive, yet misunderstood women who become ostracized by their community with judgment and barbarity. When scandal, rumors, and intense beliefs push the villagers to higher levels of cruelty and rage, it sets in motion a finale that may be too much for some viewers to bear.
The Peasants is a special kind of film that might push cinema to more pioneering heights. Its highly unique method of combining live-action and hand-painted animation (much credit to each of the artists who spent 5 hours on each frame) is something to marvel at and does not diminish the emotional storytelling at hand. Despite its non-contemporary setting, the themes of self-liberation, social climbing, and misogyny are just as relevant. The pulsating and melancholic score by L.U.C. is a vital element that helps give the story its heart and plays a significant role in its heartrending impact. There are many deep truths within this heightened reality, and DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman do not shy away from revealing them through grace and tragedy. Once you experience The Peasants, its beauty and sorrow will not let you go.
– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)
2023 Toronto Film Festival; DK Welchman, Hugh Welchman ; The Peasants movie review