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The Peasants (Chłopi): Film Review

The Peasants (Chłopi) builds upon Hugh and DK Welchman’s influences and is interesting if it feels a bit incomplete.

Artistry and surreal imagery came alive this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. One film may slip under the radar, but still has much to offer. The Peasants (Chłopi), from husband-and-wife directing duo Hugh and DK Welchman, expands on their previous film Loving Vincent. It has a similar style, but in a different setting with a new idea in mind. No other film quite captures the visuals of this one, and the unique setting and atmosphere capture a glimpse into a unique culture.

The Peasants is based on a novel by Nobel Prize laureate Wladyslaw Raymont. It captures a year in the life of a peasant village in rural Poland. Jagna (Kamila Urzędowska) is a simple farmer, who is encouraged to marry upwards to gain social status. Against her will, she is forced to marry the affluent Maciej Boryna (Miroslaw Baka), who is old enough to be her grandfather. Over the course of this marriage, Jagna falls for his son Antek (Robert Gulaczyk), and the rift it causes in both the family and community tears the town apart.

Each of the four seasons is used as a checkpoint, allowing the narrative to be established as a set of four vignettes, each detailing a phase in the town’s progress. Having the environment shift and don a new color palette each time turns the setting into a character in its own right; a capricious, almost dreamlike environment set apart by how drastic it changes.

The movie was made in the same manner as 2017’s Loving Vincent. It was first shot in live action, then distributed to over a hundred painters across three different countries, who worked non-stop over five years to paint every frame. This technique is similar to “rotoscope”, where real-life movements are captured by tracing footage. With a painting, much more time and effort is needed. All the man-hours of creating this art shine across the film.

While Loving Vincent used the aesthetic to tie itself to Vincent Van Gogh, this instead uses the style to build atmosphere. The changing of the seasons is captured by using light contrast, shining off leaves and in snow. Polish painter Jozef Chelmonski was a huge influence on the picture, with his landscapes in particular showing themselves here. Lucas “L.U.C.” Rostowski’s folk-like score also adds to the atmosphere, giving a rustic, traditional sound. The music is reminiscent of the score to a video game also rooted in Polish culture: The Witcher III.

loud and clear reviews The Peasants film movie 2023 tiff
The Peasants (New Europe Film Sales / TIFF 2023)

This is not to say the movie is perfect, though. Much of the story feels fragmentary, abridging its lengthy source material to fit two hours. In a film set in a small village, it seems more identity should be given to the community as a whole. Little time is given to show Jagna fall for Antek, leaving their relationship to feel rushed. While other people in the town are shown, their reactions to the events unfolding are saved for the end, with several fights and conflicts feeling jarring with how slow the movie has gone up to that point. Other times, scenes slow down as though the footage is clipping, leading to a disorienting effect. It may leave viewers wanting to refresh their screen, even though it is a deliberate choice in the film. While the whole movie looks great, the story beneath may have needed some more fleshing out, and possibly a few extra minutes to feel complete.

As it is style over substance, The Peasants will not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, those with an eye for visual art and an appreciation for the detail of painting will enjoy it. Despite the pacing issues, it is a movie one will not forget easily, and one of the most unique offerings at TIFF.

The Peasants (Chłopi) premiered at TIFF 2023 and will be released in select US theaters and in UK cinemas on December 8, 2023.

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