TORONTO, Canada—We’re in an era of revisionist historical dramas that care more about imagining the past as it should have been than as it was, and thus The Peasants resounds as a bracing corrective. An amazingly evocative and illuminating period piece that’s fixated on the details and dynamics that govern life in a small 19th-century Polish village, wife-and-husband writers/directors DK and Hugh Welchman’s film (premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival) employs the same gorgeous painterly animation as their prior Loving Vincent. The result is at once florid and austere, inventive and realistic, and an altogether enlightening recreation of a bygone time and place.
The Peasants is an adaptation of Władysław Reymont's Nobel Prize-winning novel (written in four volumes from 1904-1909) and concerns Jagna (Kamila Urzedowska), a young blonde-haired maiden whose fetching looks make her the prize of Lipce, a remote rural farming community. It’s an enclave where everyday talk revolves around wool, potato harvests, and church, and where everything is run through Boryna (Mirosław Baka), the area’s wealthiest landowner and, consequently, most powerful man. Boryna is recently widowed and has three children, the oldest of whom, stout and severe Antek (Robert Gulaczyk), is married to Hanka (Sonia Mietielica). Antek and his siblings all covet their father’s wealth and are intent on preserving their right to their inheritance. Of more pressing interest to Antek, though, is Jagna, for whom he desperately pines.
DK and Hugh Welchman set their scene via gracefully morphing Van Gogh-inspired sights, with close-ups of tall grass fields shifting attention to dandelion fluff blooming and blowing through the air, cascading over green landscapes, and drifting past flocks of birds on the way to Lipce. Outside a church, their camera trails behind an adolescent boy as he races between various groups of men and women, their conversations providing insights into their routines and immediate affairs. Much of that chatter has to do with Jagna, who’s “beautiful and talented” and therefore primed for marriage. “I don’t care about that,” she tells the mayor’s wife, but care she must, in order to keep a roof over her head and food in her stomach. Afterwards, her mother makes sure her daughter understands that independence—be it caring for an injured stork or making lovely cutout designs intended to decorate the walls of homes—is not a future on which she can count.
Jagna is a wild child with a local reputation for sleeping around, although Urzedowska’s plaintive face and innocent demeanor suggests that she’s less a woman of loose morals than merely a girl with a passionate heart. To Antek, she’s the sun and the moon and the stars, and he doggedly pursues her, all while sparring with his dad Boryna, whom he views as a bullying tyrant for refusing to divide his land among his progeny. Father-son tensions escalate further when Boryna is convinced that, in order to retain control of his property, he should remarry, and that Jagna would be an ideal bride. A union is subsequently brokered with the aid of Jagna’s mother, and a wedding takes place, shot and staged by the directors with free-flowing energy—all rambunctious dancing, piercing glances and rotating movements—that’s both joyful and ominous, as if things are on the precipice of spiraling irreversibly out of control.
The Peasants was shot with live actors and its frames were then individually animated by way of tens of thousands of oil paintings, which make it akin to a living, breathing Van Gogh (with more than a touch of Monet and Cézanne). The effect is downright transportive, affording a view of yesterday through the prism of the century’s most famous art. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the film is a triumph, not just because it’s so superficially striking but, additionally, because its imagery shares such a natural and inherent connection to the material. In fact, there are times when the proceedings would have benefited from slowing down a bit to gaze more longingly at some of its finest compositions, as when Antek throws a rival for Jagna’s affections into a stream and others hurry to reach the injured man before he drowns.
There’s much to wondrously gaze at in The Peasants, yet the film is more than a stylistic showcase. The directors keenly focus on the day-to-day specifics, celebratory rituals and class- and gender-related forces at work in Lipce, in the process imparting a deep and fascinating sense of what it was like to inhabit such roles and spaces—never more so than when Jagna wends her way through a marketplace full of disparate vendors. What appears to be a simple existence is anything but, and that becomes pointedly clear once the betrothed Jagna refuses to end things with Antek, begetting conflicts, crisis and wrenching turmoil for everyone involved.
The Peasants’ melodramatic plot offers a stark portrait of old-school misogyny, with Jagna slandered and punished for her autonomy, forced to relinquish it, and then vilified for that as well. Mercifully, DK and Hugh Welchman’s script interjects no nods to modern attitudes or sensibilities, seeking only to authentically reconstruct and comprehend its 19th-century milieu. That it does, depicting the eternal push-pull between freedom and obligation as it charts Jagna and Antek’s intertwined paths. Moreover, the filmmakers fashion their various characters with vivid brushstrokes, so that even peripheral figures—be it a mayor (Andrzej Konopka) with untoward intentions or a prospective priest (Maciej Musial) whose return home unintentionally ignites the final calamity—come across as charismatically distinctive.
Its sweeping pastoral romanticism balanced by its emotional bleakness, The Peasants reveals a world of love and hate, hope and resignation, gossip and faith, and the fact that its narrative is structured around the seasons lends it a touch of mythic timelessness. Like newly married couples twirling arm-and-arm on a dance floor or lovers intensely clutching at each other in the moonlight, the world keeps on spinning. If DK and Hugh Welchman’s tale of hardship, subjugation, jealousy, betrayal and exile feels familiar, that’s because it’s one that’s played out again and again. Courtesy of uniquely sumptuous animation, however, it feels, in The Peasants, like history reborn.
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