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In the world of cinema, aesthetics play a pivotal role in storytelling. However, there are times when the pursuit of beauty becomes a double-edged sword, overshadowing the core narrative. This conundrum is keenly exemplified in the visually sumptuous yet narratively challenged film “The Peasants.”
Directed by the acclaimed duo DK and Hugh Welchman, known for their work on “Loving Vincent,” this Polish Oscar entry is an adaptation of Władysław Reymont’s celebrated 1924 novel. What sets it apart, and sometimes detracts from its impact, is its unique approach: painstakingly hand-painted oil frames over live-action footage, resulting in an artistic feat that deserves admiration for its craftsmanship.
The film embarks on a significant endeavor, fully hand-painting approximately 40,000 oil frames, translating to about six frames per second of the final footage. The sheer impracticality of this approach becomes evident, yet it’s a feat that sets it apart in terms of sheer artistry.
However, where the film falters is in its screenplay. The directors have undertaken the Herculean task of condensing Reymont’s epic 1000-page novel, a literary masterpiece ingrained in Polish culture, into a feature film. Regrettably, what remains feels both inadequate and antiquated. The story is laced with outdated archetypes and gender roles rooted in the late 19th and early 20th-century rural landscape, offering little novelty or contemporary relevance.
The story revolves around Jagna (Kamila Urzędowska), a remarkably beautiful peasant girl who becomes the object of desire for many men in her village. Her inability to sympathize with less fortunate women in the community and her flighty nature diminish her appeal as a character, making her transformation into a feminist icon at the film’s conclusion somewhat unconvincing.
The plot also delves into the conflicts within the village, particularly the resentment brewing between Antek (Robert Gulaczyk) and Maciej (Mirosław Baka) over Jagna’s hand in marriage. The film navigates through issues of wealth and societal expectations within this rural setting.
Despite the film’s visually striking aesthetics, the characters are required to exaggerate their expressions to ensure they come through the layers of paint, leading to an overly telegraphed performance. The result is a peculiar visual discord between the fluid camerawork and the dense layers of paint, with backgrounds appearing impressionistic while faces border on photo-realism, at times even veering into a disconcertingly modern makeup aesthetic.
“Loving Vincent” benefited from its unique approach, adding depth to famous paintings and offering an interpretation of the world as Vincent van Gogh may have perceived it. In contrast, “The Peasants” lacks a clear rationale for its distinctive style, which can, at times, distract from the story it aims to tell.
In conclusion, “The Peasants” stands as a testament to the unyielding commitment of its creators to artistic innovation. While its aesthetic is undoubtedly a marvel, it may, paradoxically, be a case of “beauty overload.” In a quest to create a cinematic masterpiece, it occasionally loses sight of the narrative’s core, resulting in a film that is pretty as a picture but struggles as a coherent storytelling experience.