Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
June 14, 2024
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The Peasants

Painted film a bold choice to kick off The County’s new film festival
<p>Painted reapers in DK and Hugh Welchman&#8217;s film, The Peasants (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)</p>
Painted reapers in DK and Hugh Welchman’s film, The Peasants (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Distilled is a new column dedicated to the books, films, subjects, and people of the County Adaptation Film Festival. It considers how adaptation from one medium to another across the arts transforms the ways we see and read. Submissions are welcome.

The Peasants (2023) is a bold choice to kick off The County’s new film festival. It adapts a sprawling historical novel about rural life not just into film, but into oil paintings.

Directors DK and Hugh Welchman created Loving Vincent in 2017, an academy award-nominated film about Vincent Van Gogh entirely rendered in oil paintings. 

The technique was adapted for this film, but with a difference. The Peasants is composed of painted scenes first shot with live actors. Painters worked from still photographs to create the thousands of original paintings that recompose the film’s frames.

The adaptation begins with Polish author Wladyslaw Reymont’s four-volume national epic, published between 1904 and 1909 and awarded the 1924 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The film version unfolds in a series of paintings, a technique that at once challenges and expands the arts of animation and cinematography. The Peasants stresses the individual film still in a new way. 

The technique makes for fascinating viewing: absorption and engagement are challenged by the impositions of the art, in the way that emphatic brushwork or heavy paint challenges the coherence of a painted object or scene the closer you get to it.

Jean-François Millet, 1857 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Critic after critic notes the film’s extreme beauty. The landscape, which is traced through all four seasons, as well as the music, dances, costumes, and characters, are all highly stylized. Individual scenes recall works by such celebrated painters as Jozef Chelmonski and Jean-Francois Millet.

The sheer difficulty of the lives of the labouring peasantry offers a stark contrast
to the film’s beauty.
The realities of rural life and its unending labour are crystallized in
the sheer labour of  all the paintings —
tens of thousands of them were hand-painted by over 200 artists in four studios,
in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Serbia,
over the five years of the film’s production.

Six frames for every second of live footage means the one hour, 54-minute film required 42,000 canvasses.

While actors speak and move in the film, they are painted over, hidden. Viewers hear the actors but only see the paintings, which come to represent the force of appearances and social roles.

Painted by Tetiana Ocheredko (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The life of the beautiful young woman at the center of the story is entirely given over to a rigid patriarchal culture that demeans women and deprives them of choice and autonomy.

But she is far from the only victim. Both the men and women in this film are contained by traditional patriarchal social structures, as well as the power of privilege and authority.

What is on the inside, painted over, the sheer force of inner feeling, the anger at being deprived of the power of choice, drives the brutality and violence of the film, while its beauty abstracts and distances.

Together, the beauty and the violence are a fascinating combination. They bring into view at once the timeless force of custom and convention, and the way they obscure and distort the life of human feeling. 

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 15 edition of The Picton Gazette
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