Six years after attending the BFI London Film Festival with their groundbreaking feature film debut Loving Vincent, Polish filmmakers DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman are back with their second feature, The Peasants (OV: Chlopi), which is based on the Nobel-winning novel by Wladyslaw Reymont.
Taking place across a whole year, divided into seasons, the story focuses on three characters in the village of Lipce – the beautiful Jagna (Kamila Urzedowska), her married love interest Antek (Robert Gulaczyk) and his middle-aged widower father Boryna (Miroslaw Baka). Innocent Jagna finds herself coerced into marrying Boryna, which raises suspicions within his family and the local community, all of whom see her as a promiscuous and opportunistic gold-digger. However, she is in love with the temperamental Antek.
Even before the film starts, it is hard not to compare The Peasants with Loving Vincent. Instead of having a number of prolific artworks from a historically famous painter as the foundation of the narrative, DK and Hugh Welshman base the follow-up to their acclaimed debut on an epic Nobel-winning novel that may not resonate with audiences as much as Vincent van Gogh. But with the Welchmans’ debut setting a new standard in animation, expectations are nonetheless high.
The film quickly establishes an isolated and subsequently suffocating environment where men are expected to work and women raise the children and maintain the house. As the story takes place in the early 20th century, the old-fashioned values among the close-knit community immediately puts women at a disadvantage. This is worse in Jagna’s case – she is a constant object of gossip due to her singleton and childless status, her reluctance to marry, and the unconfirmed rumours of her wandering eye. In addition, her interest in Antek isn’t exactly tactful – openly admiring from afar, even when he is with his wife Hanka (Sonia Mietielica), it is surprising that Boryna, an influential person in the village, didn’t even notice their mutual interest before effectively “buying” her as his bride. Therefore, it is a transactional relationship that sets a sour note for the remainder of the film.
For audiences unfamiliar with the original novel, certain elements of The Peasants regarding the village’s treatment towards women are incredibly unsettling – so much so that some viewers would consider them horrifying. The directors do not dilute this feeling of discomfort as this love triangle becomes increasingly complicated due to family drama and suppressed feelings. All the while, Jagna is constantly in the public eye due to her being the wife of Lipce’s leading farmer while Antek’s overwhelming jealousy threatens her dignity. When opportunities arise for her to stand out, she keeps getting beaten down with little support and this results in a sullen narrative driven by cold-hearted characters with a pessimistic screenplay.
While the animation blended wonderfully with Van Gogh’s works to elevate the premise in Loving Vincent, it is treated in The Peasants as a tool of interpretation that, despite its beauty, does not elevate it. The Welchmans’ raw and detailed animation style shapes an incredibly picturesque feature with small cultural insights, but there are times that it doesn’t fit with such a complex narrative and effectively does not capture the talented cast at their best.
Overall, The Peasants feels like a super-heavy slump after the highs of Loving Vincent. Gorgeously animated but deeply depressing, it may divide audiences through its brutality and lack of redemption.
The Peasants received its UK Premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on 11 October.
Director: DK Welchman, Hugh Welchman
Stars: Kamila Urzedowska, Robert Gulaczyk, Miroslaw Baka, Sonia Mietielica, Ewa Kasprzyk
Runtime: 114 minutes
Country: Poland, Serbia, Lithuania