An experiment of replacing craftspeople, necessary in most film productions, with an entourage of artists, The Peasants is a pictorially impeccable film. Artistic partners (and married duo) DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman, who delivered the only other film even moderately similar to this one in 2017’s Loving Vincent, labored a hard four years on their newest film, and every one of the 200,000 hours of work put into the film is left on the screen. The Peasants is the best film this writer has seen in 2023, and even among the very best of the decade.
The filmmaking process for The Peasants‘ story, adapted from Władysław Reymont’s novel (original title: Chłopi), is a complex one. First, the co-directors filmed an entire live-action feature with actors. Then, as was the case with Loving Vincent, a small army of artists worked for years oil painting the frames using the live-action footage for reference. But as the directors mention in their interview with Letterboxd, the keyframes for their new film took nearly five hours each because of their complexity; as a point of reference, Loving Vincent’s frames averaged out to “just” two and a half hours. Understandably, instead of having the 125 painters create 12 frames per second like with their first film, the Welchmans here use the magic of computer animation artists (and not artificial intelligence) to compensate between keyframes, which gives their new film a stronger sense of free-ranging motion. And if that weren’t enough, the multi-national production was interrupted by both the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where the animators at MOREFILM studio in Kyiv were under threat of perish. (The filmmakers apparently helped many of their animators escape the war; others stayed and worked through it.) The result of all this work is unparalleled in vision and execution, the popping colors swimming into each other almost as if in lost in a dance that never ends.
In the rural village of Lipce, Poland at the turn of the century, Jagna Paczesiówna (Kamila Urzędowska), a young peasant girl who makes cutesy paper cutouts, desires Antek Boryna (Robert Gulaczyk), who already has a wife, but instead finds herself maritally obligated to his elder father and the village’s “first farmer,” Maciej (Mirosław Baka). And so, she becomes her lover’s step-mother. Taking place across four seasons, each with an impressively distinct look and feel, the town riotously turns against Jagna as the year passes. She’s harassed, abused, assaulted, and raped too many times to recall. But while she’s clearly positioned as the narrative’s “main character,” the film isn’t really about her. Instead, its focus is on the town’s proclamation of social death for its resident “hussy,” a title thrown at her. Through it all, Jagna repeatedly chooses to weather the attempted erosion of her individuality by the collective.
The Peasants‘ complex world-building is notably impressive. Characters come and go between the seasons, lending the air of an actual lived-in village and its deep-rooted social systems. Characters make contradictory life choices and share equally complex desires; at one point, Antek takes aim to kill his father, but in a last-minute decision defends him from an attacker rather than committing patricide. Jagna, in a similar display of compassion, cares for the dying Maciej — a man who mistreats her and whom she had to unwillingly marry. And to add another sliver of historicity, an Orthodox Jewish man can be spotted in the background of this majority Christian community, and though he never speaks, these details hint at a world that feels far larger than the edges of the frame and demonstrate the care the directors have poured into the film.
Of course, The Peasants‘ mixture of impressionistic oil painting and hyper-realism is undoubtedly the main attraction here, but it’s smartly not an approach that is forced to the shape of the story. Instead, the film’s aesthetic meets the demands of Reymont’s original work, which likewise operates within the realms of both realism and impressionism. Accompanied by a Polish folk score from composer Lukasz L.U.C. Rostkowski, the film’s many dance scenes are a marvel, and rival any of the wonderful dance sequences in the films of Wong Kar-wai, whose use of step-printing similarly melts bodies into one another and creates bold intimacy. Here, though, the blending and movement of colors in a frame that’s always tingling with energy honors the best of oil painting generally and the Polish painting movement, Young Poland, specifically (the dominant artistic period at the time the source material was written). The particular painting style dictates that every little cinematographic choice will be a major one, overwhelming the viewer with emotion and easing their surrender to the powerful and quite grand artistic choices.
But it isn’t only the spectacle of the art that impresses: the realism of several frames, especially those focused on human faces, sometimes takes on such an intensity that with minimal movement the line between animation and live-action becomes nearly imperceptible. At the same time, the style goes to tremendous lengths on several occasions to create powerful symbolism — including the slaying of a cow early on in the film — and, of course, imbues a sort of literary mood to the atmosphere that can only ever really be achieved cinematically through animation. The Welchmans formal innovations breathe new life into the seventh art, and The Peasants is a magnificent example of what it is the artform can achieve and how it can still surprise.