At the AFI Fest screening introduction Hugh Welchman joked that The Peasants was the second, and would probably be the last film animated by hand painting each shot frame by frame. The first, of course, was also made by him and his parter DK, the acclaimed Loving Vincent. A documentary about Van Gogh seems the perfect pair for hand painted animation in the style of its subject. For a follow-up the Welchman’s decided on oil paintings and a nearly 800 page Polish novel, Chlopi or The Peasants.
Working in the medium of hand painted art is necessarily time consuming. If every frame is its own work of art, not only does the next frame need an artist to fully render, as a single frame in a sequence it has to match the frames that sandwich it. Given the intricacy of the work, this sort of medium must be deliberate to what story it wants to tell. Even at two hours, The Peasants required art studios in four countries and over 120 animators. So this naturally begs the question: what was lost when distilling 800 pages of classic Polish literature into just 2 hours of film.
The Peasants is a classic tale of Polish literature, describing the lives of a rural, farming community in the early 20th century. In the film adaptation by Welchman and Welchman, the broadness is abandoned for a more singular focus on Jagna (Kamila Urzedowska,) a beautiful young woman sought after by many of the men in the depicted village. Among those men are Boryna (Miroslaw Baka,) a widower and the richest man in town, as well as his son Antek (Robert Gulaczyk.) Jagna’s mother wants her to marry Bornya for the massive dowry he can pay but her true feelings lie with Antek, despite the fact that he is married with children already.
This modern telling of the classic Polish tale does well to center Jagna and the indignities she faces by each of the men in her village, depicting each of her gentleman suitors as vile and contemptuous. Her mistreatment is hard to watch yet simultaneously a brutal reminder of the misogyny of both the time and modernity. Forced to marry the much older Bornya, abused by Antek and verbally disparaged by every man and woman in town, Jagna is subject to much abuse based on assumptions due to her looks.
In that sense oil paintings are a fitting medium for the tale. The form is rebound for its beauty but lacks the finer details of a more precise method. To a degree that is Jagna too, sought after by the men of the town for her painterly appearance rather than her personality and individuality. What results is a stunningly gorgeous art piece of a film, similarly lacking a lot of depth in the story. Each frame is alive with color and personality. Background characters are given the same level of attention as the the leads. Not for a moment is a frame behind the main action ever static. Unparalleled craft work.
Undeniably, The Peasants is impressively nice to look at. Could the film have been better in another mode of storytelling though? Would the loss of unique beauty offset what could be gained by another art form? Over 40,000 individual, hand painted frames make up this 114 minute film. A staggering achievement for sure, but one that necessarily limits the adaptation of a lengthy novel. More traditional animation or even a live action rendition of the story may have given more room to breathe and the characters more space to develop. Beautiful as the film is, there is very little space to get close to the people whose lives we observe.
Jagna is a very powerful character, her experiences are important and what she goes through at the hands of the men around her makes for a devastating tale of patriarchy and misogyny. Unfortunately a lot of Jagna’s character building, and that of the rest of the town needed to be cut back in order to tell the story in a way that was at least somewhat manageable. Like every film, The Peasants had to make choices and the choices made resulted in something that cannot quite add up to the sum of its parts. 6/10