It is an overused cliche to describe visually stunning films as “every frame of this movie could be a painting hanging on the wall.” It is now an actual fact for at least two films. “Loving Vincent” was the first animated feature-length film composed exclusively of hand-painted oil paintings as its individual frames. Polish-language, “The Peasants” is the second — by the same husband and wife directing duo DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman. The extraordinary novelty of this technique and the undeniably unique visual look of these films can’t help but designate them as must-sees regardless of merit.
“The Peasants” is a period romantic melodrama about an other-worldly village beauty, Jagna (Kamila Urzędowska), and the various lusty, lecherous men who covet her. Among them are Maciej, the wealthiest farmer around (Mirosław Baka), his mercurial son Antek (Robert Gulaczyk — Vincent van Gogh in “Loving Vincent”), the Mayor (Andrzej Konopka), village hand Mateusz (Mateusz Rusin) and student Jasio (Maciej Musiał). Jagna herself, though, is a guileless young woman, and her eventual, inevitable degradation and ruin will remind audiences of such films as David Lean’s “Ryan’s Daughter” and Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.”
Besides its look, another aspect to recommend “The Peasants” is that it is the first feature adaptation of Nobel laureate Władysław Reymont’s celebrated novel “The Peasants.” There was a 1922 adaptation, now considered lost, and a 1972 Polish mini-series, little seen today. This movie will be the widest dissemination of this story. The film proudly advertises itself as the adaptation of a Nobel Prize-winning novel. While some might give this claim the side-eye — “The Peasants” is indeed one of the very few single novels to win its writer the Nobel Prize — writers in almost all instances win it for their collective body of work. By all appearances, the film is a very faithful rendition, right down to the headings for the four sections named after the seasons— Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer.
Interestingly, the cast listed above does not just provide voices for this animated film but also had to fully perform their roles in real life. “The Peasants” is perhaps more aptly characterized as a live-action-animated hybrid as the entire film was first shot in live-action with real actors, in real costumes, with several real sets. After the live-action film was fully edited, the painting work began — deploying a rotoscoping technique.
The painting technique heightens certain effects while also laying bare several shortcomings. In the plus column, we have the natural oomph that a painting can provide to its subjects. Landscapes are more painterly than they would appear in live action, and faces, in particular, benefit immensely from the idealization of oil painting. The already attractive cast is rendered godly and larger than life. There is also, though, a distancing effect due to this level of abstraction. Objects and people onscreen appear remarkably life-like but not quite live-action, creating an uncanny feeling.
Also, perhaps fearing that passion and emotion would be lost in a layer of paint, the entire cast is directed to give huge, ostentatious, capital A performances. The art of painting, though, throughout centuries, has been refined to enhance the emotion in a captured moment of time, not diminish it. Consequently, several performances occupy the space of over-the-top hyperbole—something that would clearly be unacceptable in live-action. It extends beyond facial expressions and even applies to physical actions, which seem highly exaggerated and overblown, especially in fight scenes.
Robert Gulaczyk, as the hot-headed, red-blooded Antek, is conspicuously hammy, though in a very entertaining way. It’s a credit to his charisma that he still manages to create a character through all that bluster and makes it seem like a deliberate choice. Urzędowska, as the lead character, makes more of an impact through her unspeakable, inconceivable beauty since her character is rendered passive for much of the story. Nevertheless, she does demonstrate promise in the moments where she more fulsomely gets to express her emotions.
Some might take exception with “The Peasants” and “Loving Vincent” branding themselves as the only two fully painted animated pictures. What about classic Disney films and even current Studio Ghibli films? Aren’t they painted as well? They are, but the mode of execution sets them apart. In the simplest terms, traditional hand-drawn animation is still graphical in nature — edges are outlined in black — a barrier to achieving an absolute approximation of real human vision. Oil paintings do not have edges and thus can seem more life-like.
The filmmakers revealed that for “The Peasants,” six frames per second were fully painted, and the rest of the 18 frames (films usually have 24 frames per second if they’re shot on film, digital 30) were interpolated by computers. This was done because it took 5 hours for each of the 40,000 oil paintings. They vociferously protest that AI could not have accomplished this film— because they themselves tried to use it and found it lacking. Though, the film went into production four years ago. At the rate AI is getting better at generating images, it is only a matter of time before AI can spit out something close to this film after taking in the completed live-action film as input. Does that make “The Peasants,” in effect, a live-action film with an Instagram filter put over it? Not quite, but given the enormous expense and labor in making a film this way, it is no surprise that only two exist. And this subgenre might never progress beyond these two titles as AI technology matures even further.
For that reason alone, “The Peasants” will remain a curiosity, an unprecedented feature film. It is also an entry into the genre of animation aimed exclusively at adults — the film features sex scenes and full frontal nudity that might be deemed inappropriate for underage viewers—despite being in the form of paintings. The narrative proceedings provide sufficient interest for the duration, making it easy to recommend this film. The film might also interest viewers younger than your typical arthouse audience as its filter-like visual quality might encourage meming, sampling, and recreations on social media. [B]