Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)


There was a shot in the opening scenes of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” that fascinated me, and the direction this hypnotic, surreal little movie took later on confirmed my fascination for this shot.  As the girls of this hoity-toity Australian boarding school circa 1900 awaken and ready themselves for an outing to the beautiful Hanging Rock, we see the lovely Miranda, sitting at her desk, as fellow student Sara greets her.  We see and hear Sara speak to Miranda, but all we see of Miranda is her face…in a small desk mirror.  As far as I remember, we never see Miranda’s face directly in this early scene, only an indirect reflection: in other words, a conception of the girl, rather than the real thing.  And since this is the story of the inexplicable disappearance of Miranda, two other girls, and a teacher at Hanging Rock and the effect that has on everybody else, this would make sense.  The overriding presence of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” isn’t Miranda herself (although she’s featured prominently in the first portion of the film), but the mere idea of her, and her missing companions.  And in turn, that idea will affect people like the aforementioned Sara, the cruel yet oddly sympathetic headmistress Mrs. Appleyard, two young men who were the last people to see the girls, and others in exotic ways you wouldn’t expect for these near-puritanical people in a decidedly non-puritanical setting.  Overall it’s a hypnotic and mysterious, albeit flawed, experience.

You know in the awful “Alien3” how the big climax is nothing but Sigourney Weaver running around some dark hallways with a bunch of identical bald Englishmen?  Well replace dark hallways with beautiful natural rock formation and identical bald Englishmen with identical well-dressed schoolgirls and “Alien3” becomes “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”  So much of the first portion of the film was simply what I just described, as these hoity-toity schoolgirls wearing fancy white outfits that have no business being in such a forest setting explore the increasingly eerie rock.  Shots of various facets of nature from insects to lizards to frogs, as well as the sheer ominous magnitude of the rock itself, are interspersed throughout, not unlike something Terrence Malick or even Werner Herzog would throw at you.  There are moments where the girls, led by Miranda, simply move forward, higher and higher up the rock for seemingly no reason, and in fact they don’t even walk, but glide, like ghosts in their starkly white dresses.  They stand out like a sore thumb in this setting of jagged rocks, trees and bushes, and pure nature, like how the black slab stood out in the monkeys’ rocky haven in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Without emotion, without speaking, they simply move forward, going into that dreaded crevasse, pushed by some unknown purpose and force, simply to…vanish.  All of this certainly heightens the sense of dread and mystery, but I wonder if Weir didn’t go overboard with it.  Certainly the ethereal air about these girls and the eerie aura they give off in an even eerier setting makes for one hell of cinematic experience, and an unnerving one, but it was all so eerie and one-note that I actually got bored after a while.  It was fascinating to look at and take in, sure, but you can only take so much of it non-stop for, what, 40 minutes, before it does indeed become boring.  It definitely unnerved me and disturbed me, which is the point I guess, but still, Peter Weir drove home the point of all-powerful nature having an incalculable effect on these puny, socially deprived humans like there was no tomorrow, and no lie, I wanted to move on.

And move on it did, as the focus transitions to the effect of the girls’ disappearance on those directly and indirectly involved with them.  Some of it is fascinating, some of it mindboggling.  One of the aspects of this portion of the film that fascinated me the most was the bizarre relationship between the headmistress Mrs. Appleyard and the ostracized schoolgirl Sara.  Sara, who’s clearly in love with Miranda but of course can’t express it in such an austere turn-of-the-century setting, is quiet, a loner, and for some reason endures the constant manipulation and subtle cruelty from Mrs. Appleyard.  And the headmistress herself, well, I don’t know what to make of her issues.  What a strange character.  Distraught over the girls’ disappearance, even more distraught over the subsequent tuition withdrawals from worried parents, driven to the drink, always taking out her misery on poor Sara.  In this environment of lovely, sexually concealed young women, here stands this woman who’s about as sexually repressed as Nurse Ratched, and her emotional pokes and prods directed towards Sara take on a subtle and very uncomfortable sexual undertone.  Much like the unusual image of victorian-esque girls wandering through the chaotic wild of Hanging Rock, the sexual tension is throbbing in the school setting as well, desperate to bust out in this repressed mini-society.  Only when these austere, near-robotic girls representing Order are enveloped by the Chaos of nature can the long-repressed free-spirited nature of humanity start to rear its head, and ruin the likes of Mrs. Appleyard.  And Weir depicts this expertly, in scenes nearly as hypnotic as those at Hanging Rock itself, so that the change in Mrs. Appleyard and the girls of her school takes a long time and is very, very subtle, allowed to develop naturally rather than catalyzed by this arbitrary plot development or that.  Hell, the newly-learned fact, as described by the one girl who made it back down the mountain, that the teacher was running towards the girls wearing nothing but her underwear, is practically glossed over and disregarded.  You know, then, that something weird is going on, and it’s subtly disturbing moments like this that add to the movie’s surreal quality.

I liked this element of the story because it involved people examining the deep aspects of their psyches as an indirect result of the disappearance of the girls.  That event happens, and the evolution of characters like Sara and Mrs. Appleyard is allowed to commence.  That simple.  Little mention of the disappearance is made – it only remains faintly in our minds as it indirectly affects where the story goes.  That’s what Michelangelo Antonioni was going for with a similar premise in “L’Avventura”: a young woman disappears on an island, and the lives of her loved ones is indirectly affected until the disappearance becomes irrelevant, as the dull futility of their lives becomes obvious.  I didn’t love “L’Avventura,” but I at least recognized what Antonioni, the master of dreariness, was going for, and there are aspects of “Picnic” that have that same strategy of allowing the catalyzing incident to fade into the background so that the real focus of the film can make itself known.  I liked that aspect of “Picnic,” but not others.  Specifically (and this might be incredibly unfair nitpicking on my part 😕 ), I didn’t like the undue obsession that just about everyone initially had with the vanished girls.  Clearly there would be considerable worry in such a situation, but here, and to this extent, I found myself asking: why?  Why do those two young men who were at Hanging Rock that day obsess over the missing girls the way they do, finding themselves drawn to that crevasse the way the girls themselves were?  Is it because society tells them to worry/obsess over it?  Is it a sense of guilt?  Is it a truly supernatural effect given off by the rock and by nature itself?  I could never tell, and again I suppose that’s the point of it all, but I know when a movie frustrates me, and this frustrated me, so I don’t know what to say 😕 .

This movie is 115 minutes long, and there’s not a moment of that that you wouldn’t call “slowly paced.”  You can certainly read “slowly paced” as hypnotic and surreal, and indeed much of “Picnic” is just that.  There’s a fine line, though, between “slowly paced” from a surreal standpoint and mind-numbingly dull and drawn out, and “Picnic” finds itself situated on each side of that line throughout.  I loved much of the scenes at Hanging Rock for their supernatural / mysterious feel, I loved the scenes of quiet tension back at the school.  What I didn’t love, though, was scene after scene of students, police, witnesses, etc. all looking and talking in depressing monotone: lifeless, unmemorable, and boring (and yet again that’s probably the point, but one I couldn’t bring myself to buy into if I tried).  I think my main problem was just that there were few characters that were actually fleshed out into honest-to-god people you could give a fuck about (hell, that snake of a headmistress came closest, go figure 😕 ).  The lustful-turned-worried pals at Hanging Rock that day did nothing for me, and Miranda and the seemingly-possessed girls practically cease to be human when they ascend the rock.  They’re pure symbols of suppressed femininity against the backdrop of full-on nature, and after they disappear from our vision they remain as symbols all the same, as catalysts for change in the other characters.  But they’re just that: depthless symbols, and nothing more.  Sure, Weir depicts the utter banality of this lifestyle perfectly, using symbolic rather than emotionally deep characters, but just how far can that go as a deep viewing experience?  A bit disappointing, then, that we never get a closer look at the likes of Miranda than a mere mirror image.



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