There is one particular sequence in The Peasants that is so breathtaking that the word “breathtaking” itself is rendered insufficient. It is a sequence where animation and music blend together in a maelstrom of ecstasy, intensity building and building and building until love becomes the dominant force between two people, made all the more powerful by the knowledge that consequences are just around the corner. It is storytelling efficiency in action, but without sacrificing either story or character.
Based on Władysław Reymont’s Nobel Prize-winning novel of the same name, The Peasants at its heart is about a young woman trying to find some agency, any agency in a Polish village where there is not much agency to be had, at least not the kind our protagonist is looking for. Jagna (Kamila Urzedowska) is beautiful, the belle of the ball, and this evocation of beauty makes her the target for lust, admiration, and gossip alike, though she is largely inured to all of this.
Jagna is in love with Antek (Robert Gulaczyk) and it’s easy to see why; he’s handsome, buff, and looks great without a shirt on. Unfortunately, he happens to have a wife Hanka (Sonia Mietielica) and a child. As if this wasn’t already uncomfortable, Jagna’s mother Dominikowa (Ewa Kaspryzyk) sells her for a high price to Maciej Boryna (Miroslaw Baka), who just so happens to be Antek’s father. Jagna has no choice in any of this. She is nineteen. She must do as her mother says and her mother, citing the horrors of potential poverty, binds her daughter to the life she wants for her. The consequences are disastrous, and all of her emotions become so charged that there is no end to them in sight.
The Peasants does a beautiful job at crafting a village that feels lived-in, a community that has a sense of history, place, and identity. The traditions are accessible but never overly explained. It can take a moment to get oriented to its ensemble of characters but the film is never difficult to follow. There is a rhythm, a deliberate pace to the story that pays off in its intensely brutal climax. In that deliberate pacing, the story unspools at an organic pace, the power dynamics and relationships growing more intense, fragile, and monstrous.
What The Peasants will be celebrated for the most is its animation. Filmmakers DK and Hugh Welchman return to their roots in Loving Vincent and bring its celebrated animation style to this classic Polish novel. To say that the oil paintings are animated into rapturous life is perhaps an understatement; the achievement simply must be seen to be believed. This style of painting was beautiful in Vincent, but the filmmakers’ talents have become stronger. In particular, the facial expressions and overall body movements have an astounding quality of nuance that makes the tragedy and resilience feel truly profound.
The consequences of seeking personal autonomy in The Peasants are brutal. The film makes no effort to downplay the reality of what Jagna faces. It is an indictment of the patriarchy, internalized misogyny, greed, dehumanization, and mob mentality. But The Peasants makes the argument that in the face of so much harm, your autonomy, dignity, and self-worth are still worth fighting for. It may cost you a lot, maybe even everything, but the cost of acquiescence might be higher.