The Haze of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’

We’re just going to get right into it.

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is one of the most beloved Australian films of all time. It’s also one of the country’s most beguiling. It draws you in, hypnotized, like the foreboding rock formation at the center of the film; but in equal measure it pushes you away, keeping you at a distance even as you sink deeper down. It exists in Australian culture somewhere between fiction and legend; Joan Lindsay, the author of the novel on which the film is based, refused to acknowledge if the events of the story had actually happened. It doesn’t matter either way.

The film was directed by Peter Weir, his second feature to gain international attention after “The Cars That Ate Paris” but the first (of many) to latch itself into the pop culture consciousness. You might not recognize his name, but you certainly recognize his movies: “The Year of Living Dangerously,” starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver; “Witness” with Harrison Ford, for which Weir received his first Oscar nomination; “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” a needlessly wordy title; “Dead Poets Society,” the favorite film of every high school teacher; and “The Truman Show,” a movie that needs no explanation.

It’s a diverse, impressive resume, for which there appears to be no unifying link besides an artist’s ability to make great films and his monetary means to realize them. But leave it to the late, great Roger Ebert to get to the heart of the matter: “It’s interesting that most of [Weir’s films] deal in one way or another with outsiders who find themselves in places where they’re not a good fit. Somewhere at the very bottom of his imagination must lurk the conviction that you’ll be alright if you stay at home, but if you wander into other lands you may find that you have disappeared.”

This theme — an outsider in an insider’s land — is not simply at the heart of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or even Weir’s filmography, but the very essence of the Australian New Wave. The movement spanned the early 1970s to mid-1980s, with “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975) released close to the start. No doubt the most famous contribution to the Australian New Wave was George Miller’s “Mad Max” trilogy, whose star, the aforementioned (and awful) Mel Gibson, appeared in numerous New Wave films and used his success in Australia to launch a career in Hollywood. But there’s also “Crocodile Dundee,” Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” (Spine #10) and Weir’s own “Gallipoli.”

But you’re probably wondering what “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is about, and I probably should have told you sooner. The film takes place on Valentine’s Day, 1900, in the Australian state of Victoria. The schoolgirls of Appleyard College head that morning for a titular picnic at the titular Hanging Rock, described by their mistress, Miss McCraw (Vivien Gray), as if it were alive. Upon arriving, they eat cake, read poetry and bathe in the sunlight. Typical schoolgirl things. But upon returning, they are four less in number: at some point during their trip, Miss McCraw and three of her students vanished.

The film dwells less on the picnic and more on the community’s reaction to the disappearance. There is all matter of speculation and all matter of searching, but to no avail. Spoiler: we never learn what happened. Not that I would consider that a spoiler; if you’ve heard of “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” you’ve surely heard of its resolution, or its lack thereof. Besides, if you know of the film’s ambiguous ending, you’re in a much better place to enjoy it. As Weir recalls in a documentary about the movie, “One distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end of it, because he’d wasted two hours of his life — a mystery without a goddamn solution!” But “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is less interested in narrative than in our experience of narrative; in another interview, Weir states, “We worked very hard at creating a hallucinatory, mesmeric rhythm, so that you lost awareness of facts, you stopped adding things up, and got into this enclosed atmosphere. I did everything in my power to hypnotize the audience away from the possibility of solutions.

To that end, the film is an unquestionable success and an enduring inspiration (see: Sofia Coppola). The score, played by Gheorghe Zamfir on the panpipe, is haunting: its repetition never tiresome, always alluring. The costume design by Judith Dorsman is exquisite, as are the sets and the use of real locations, from Martindale Hall to Hanging Rock itself. But the shining star is the cinematography. DP Russell Boyd, a frequent collaborator of Weir’s who would later win an Oscar for “Master and Commander,” achieved the film’s gauzy, ethereal visuals by draping bridal veils of various thickness, color and style over his lens. The result feels like a sleepy, Sunday morning: “a dream within a dream,” as the most popular schoolgirl, Miranda (Anne Louise-Lambert), explains in the opening voice-over.

But the film takes place on a Saturday, not a Sunday. It begins with one of the schoolgirls, Sara (Margaret Nelson), having been denied the trip to Hanging Rock by the stern headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), even as Miranda, her best friend, is allowed to go. Miranda, of course, will never return, and after the disappearance Sara becomes even more obsessed with her best friend than she already was, insisting Miranda possessed some kind of foreknowledge of what would occur. The film hints at a sexual — at the very least, romantic — relationship between the two, which would explain Mrs. Appleyard’s curt treatment of Sara, as it is also suggested there are unreciprocated feelings between the austere headmistress and missing Miss McCraw.

In fact, repressed sexuality lies at the core of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” like some kind of Freudian case study. Appleyard College is all sorts of stuffy: the opening credits are overlaid with a montage of the schoolgirls lacing up their dresses and strapping into their corsets, even as the Australian sun beats mercilessly down. But once they arrive at Hanging Rock, the bonnets come off, as do the shoes, the socks and, as the constable discovers while conducting his investigation, various undergarments. That says nothing of Hanging Rock itself, whose various peaks and crevices are shot to look as sexually suggestive as possible. Calm down, Peter Weir! My mom reads this blog…

However, it’s not just the girls: Hanging Rock also stirs up members of the opposite sex. For example, a young Englishman (Dominic Guard), who picnicked at the Rock himself, becomes obsessed with the disappearance as a result of… well, we’re not entirely sure. We see early on he’s a bit of a peeping tom, having spied on the girls as they explored Hanging Rock. But in spite of his stalking, they still disappear. He grows only more determined to solve the mystery — and he nearly dies doing so — but we’re left asking the same question we started with: “Why?” From my perspective, he represents the male gaze, both of the film and of English society at large. Miranda exists in his mind not as a person but as a memory; he searches for her despite knowing nothing about her, because to him she’s just a concept. In failing to find her, he (and by extension, the audience) must come to terms with the fact that the “knight in shining armor” is a concept in itself.

But the film’s true brilliance is how it contrasts this repressive, patriarchal order with the freedom (and danger) of the Australian outback. While the girls of Appleyard College are quite literally suffocating under bonnets and blouses, nature knows no bounds. Hanging Rock extends in every direction it pleases, like a geological jungle gym, and its whispers of temptation seem especially loud when coupled with the silence of men. But just as there exists a gap between adolescence and sexual maturity, there exists a chasm between English settlers and the land that they colonized. Although the Aboriginal people never factor into the film, their ghosts (and the English made sure there were plenty,) haunt Hanging Rock. Perhaps it wasn’t that Hanging Rock called to the schoolgirls, luring them away from “civilization”; but rather, that Western society shoved them aside. 8/10

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