Written by: Patrick Howard | January 30th, 2024
The Peasants (DK Welchman/Hugh Welchman, 2023) 3 out of 5 stars*
Much as with D.K. and Hugh Welchman’s 2017 animated marvel Loving Vincent, it’s impossible not to verbally acknowledge the sheer beauty and incomprehensible talent of the painters who transformed each frame of their new film, The Peasants, into breathtaking oil paintings. As Kamila Urzedowska’s Jagna walks through her Polish village of Lipce, under the judgmental eyes of its resident farmers, I couldn’t help but say, “How did they do all of this?,” or, “That shot is gorgeous!” Rotoscoped by four separate Eastern European animation studios, the film shows us the life of Polish villager Jagna and the path she tries to forge in an 18th-century world filled with perpetual gossip and deep-rooted, patriarchal traditions.
Based on Nobel Prize-winning Wladyslaw Reymont’s novel of the same name, the story of The Peasants is a feminist tale many storytellers have adapted, transformed, and subverted for centuries. The foundational message of a young woman traversing a patriarchal society, in search of a life and choices to call her own, will always be essential and must be placed in front of women and young girls as often as possible. In terms of making an old and familiar story new and fresh, the Welchmans are faced with a muddy path up a steep hill.
The Peasants’ retelling of the novel is a competent endeavor, but any notable uniqueness is found only in its bold visual style. Here, the directors return to the concept of painterly daydreaming: imagine you are walking in a spacious art museum; you turn the corner and walk up to a framed oil painting of a young bride dancing with her new husband, who is thirty years older, and they are surrounded by the twenty-eight other people of their village. The scene is so vivid that you could walk straight into the painting and watch how the rest of the bride’s life plays out.
The filmmakers are continuously conscious of this idea. Every scene is littered with arresting compositions that wear the inspirations of Polish painters Józef Chełmoński, Ferdynand Ruszczyc, and Leon Wyczółkowski. The act of filming live actors and then hiring artisans to paint over each frame with an array of oils may lack novelty, thanks to the Welchmans own Loving Vincent, but it would be a flat-out lie to say that The Peasants is not another successful leap forward in rotoscope animation.
*Starting in 2024, all Film Festival Today reviews will now be rated out of 5 stars, rather than the previous 4-star system.