I’ve mentioned several times before that one of my favorite recent animated films is 2017’s Loving Vincent. Created by DK and Hugh Welchman, the movie was utterly fascinating, exploring the death of artist Vincent Van Gogh, which is traditionally attributed to suicide. However, in recent years some historians have challenged this theory, so the Welchmans crafted a story that took a retrospective look at the case, much in the same vein as Citizen Kane, questioning whether Van Gogh was really suicidal, and if his death might have been accidental or intentional homicide by someone else.
What made it really stand out was the art style. Rather than using CGI or traditional cell-shaded animation, the picture was made from 65,000 oil paintings done in Van Gogh’s post-impressionist motif. Most of the cast, including greats like Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, and Jerome Flynn, were chosen in part because they resembled some of the real-life subjects of Van Gogh’s paintings, giving the project a very odd sense of realism despite its dream-like visuals. It’s by far one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen.
Six years later, the Welchmans are back at it with The Peasants, which also serves as the official Oscars submission from Poland (DK’s home country; Hugh is British). Based on Nobel Prize-winner Władysław Reymont’s novel, which has become standard reading for students in Poland, the production team ups the ante from their previous opus in just about every meaningful respect. The animation continues the oil painting technique but takes it to another level, the ensemble cast is larger, the story more richly detailed and nuanced, all in an effort that demonstrates just how viable this method can be, should other artists wish to attempt it.
Taking place in the small farming village of Lipce at the turn of the 20th Century, the story of The Peasants unfolds over the course of a year divided into the four seasons, each with its own gorgeous establishment slate. There we find a young woman named Jagna (played exquisitely by newcomer Kamila Urzędowska), admired by the community for her beauty, kindness, and artistic skill (she makes folded paper cutouts that look really creative). She is the object of every man’s desires, and one of gossip from every woman, to the point that her mother (Ewa Kasprzyk) encourages her to marry as soon as possible, if nothing else than to quell the rumor mill.
Jagna, however, enjoys her life as it is, particularly the affections of Antek Boryna (Robert Gulaczyk) the handsome and charming son of the village’s richest landowner, Maciej (Mirosław Baka). She doesn’t want to marry at her age (she constantly rebuffs the advances of a nice young man named Mateusz, played by Mateusz Rusin), and Antek isn’t exactly an option, as he’s married to a woman called Hanka (Sonia Mietielica) and has a child with her. If there’s one structural flaw this film has, it’s that it isn’t made perfectly clear that Hanka is Antek’s wife early on. The resentment Hanka shows Jagna from the safety of the Boryna homestead is more aligned with the rest of the women in town, and since we rarely see her outside of the house, I initially inferred that she was Antek’s sister rather than his wife.
This is because Antek and Maciej are constantly at each other’s throats. Maciej is recently widowed and getting on in years, and as such, Antek and Hanka wish for him to retire so that they can take over the farm, as well as eventually inherit Maciej’s modest wealth. Maciej, on the other hand, wishes to die with his boots on, working his fields as he always has, and is considering proposing to Jagna himself. Hanka protests, seeing Jagna as an obstacle to her inheritance (especially since Maciej is willing to offer six acres of land as part of the arrangement), and of course Antek is against the idea because it takes Jagna away from him, seeing her as yet another proxy of his ongoing war with his own father.
So yeah, it would have been just a bit cleaner if it was made crystal clear that Antek and Hanka were married rather than siblings, but it doesn’t dull the impact of their familial histrionics, particularly when Maciej kicks them both out of the house for opposing him. Eventually, for the sake of keeping up appearances and financial security, Jagna does assent to Maciej (the visual of offering vodka as a form of marriage proposal is a great metaphor), and the two are married in as lavish a ceremony as can be had for the time and place.
The doldrums of winter bring darkness and danger, however, as the civility of the village slowly breaks down. A group of elite land brokers infringes on a nearby forest that is village property, desiring to clear-cut it for development from which they alone will profit, and they have the blessing of a rigged court system. This leads to a violent revolt from the citizens of Lipce, where Maciej is gravely wounded and Antek is redeemed in his father’s eyes. Meanwhile, Jagna continues to have an affair with Antek, drawing scorn from most of the townspeople, who come to see her as some sort of blight on their community when the harvest isn’t as bountiful as hoped. The increasing vitriol aimed at Jagna is heart-wrenching because it’s all based on religious superstition and solely placed on her as a convenient scapegoat rather than anyone taking stock of their own behavior. Antek isn’t blamed for cheating on his wife, but Jagna is denounced for cheating on her husband. When other men attempt to literally rape her, it’s her own fault for being a promiscuous temptress rather than them being sexual predators. The zeal and speed with which she’s converted from the idol of the town into a pariah, mostly through no fault of her own, is staggering, but all too real and expected, culminating in a climax that is both horrendous but undeniably beautiful and poetic. You can see why this novel is so beloved.
The cast on the whole does a phenomenal job, mostly because they were on camera at the beginning of the production. These are real people performing with one another on physical sets, and honestly, the film would have been perfectly fine had it been shot and edited traditionally. The Welchmans go one step beyond with their artistry, though, by incorporating the same oil painting style they used in Loving Vincent, only this time, the emphasis is on recreating the methods of Polish modernist artists of the time period like Józef Chełmoński. The live action scenes are painted over, using even more canvas work than last time (as there are 20 more minutes to this movie), before a separate team of animators worked on the cleanup process to blend everything together and make the shots appear more seamless.
It’s this last step that leaves your jaw dropped the most. Like in Loving Vincent, as the scenes move, you can detect the changes from one painting to the other by noticing subtle changes in the brush strokes. This was a really great effect, reinforcing the fantasy aspect of Van Gogh’s work. Here it’s even more pronounced and astonishing, because a lot of different moments require variations in light and color, especially since this story takes place over a full year rather than a few days with flashbacks. There’s also a strong weather influence on the proceedings, including a ton of rain and snow. In manufacturing thousands of droplets and the deluges of torrential storms, the cleanup process ends up creating a false depth of field, giving us the illusion of 3D. When this is combined with the more photorealistic use of the oil painting cover to the filmed scenes, we’re left with what looks like a live action movie with a heavy lens filter in some places than a piece of animation, and it’s stunning. Literally, until I was at AFI Fest and saw DK and Hugh Welchman introduce the film, including bringing some of the actual paintings along, all of the promotional material I had seen for this looked like it was a standard movie. I would have never guessed it was animated until I saw it.
That is a monumental accomplishment, and thankfully general audiences can now experience it as well, as it’s gotten a full theatrical release. Track this down if you possibly can, because it is rare when lightning can strike twice with an unorthodox artistic conceit. The Welchmans do it expertly here, making one of the best films of the year full stop. I was absolutely floored when I saw this, to the point that I couldn’t bring myself to ask anything in the post-screening Q&A session, only able to muster a teary-eyed “thank you” to the couple in the lobby on my way out. This is art of the highest quality, using still revolutionary methods to translate a masterful story that can be universally understood regardless of language, making it a perfect contender for International Feature.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you think of the oil painting animation form? What drink would you buy a lady to propose to her? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!