(Peter Weir, 1975)
(essay by Troy)
Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock opens with a shot of the 500-foot tall volcanic Hanging Rock, fog slowly lifting from its base, appearing like an alien monolith rising out of the earth. Taking place on Valentine’s Day circa 1900, we are soon introduced to the students of Mrs. Appleyard’s School for Girls in soft-focus golden hues, idealized visions of Victorian age femininity and beauty, shown amidst Zamfir’s ethereal pan flute and whispered poems. One of these girls is the beautiful Miranda, full of gloomy portent and as she ominously tells her roommate Sara that she’ll “not be around long” and that “”everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.” These opening shots contrast the harsh exteriors of the Rock with the glowing innocence of the girls, providing us with the image of Miranda as the perfection of femininity (a teacher of hers likens her to a “Botticelli Angel”), almost otherworldly in the way she carries herself and seems to have an understanding of what lies ahead.
The girls of the school embark on a daytrip to Hanging Rock, it’s presence looming over all of them, bigger than life (as one of the girl’s ominously remarks “It’s been waiting a million years, just for us”). Weir inserts numerous POV shots from the perspective of the rock, giving a feeling that it is peering back at the girls (this is also accomplished via several low-angle shots looking up at the dizzying heights of the rock). Other creatures seem to be fearful of Hanging Rock — birds fly away and the horses rear back as they enter its shadow. Upon arrival four of the girls, Miranda, Marion, Irma, and Edith decide to explore the Rock, almost as if magnetically drawn to it. The music and camera lend a hypnotic airiness that signifies something uncanny is afoot, not necessarily evil, but certainly alien. Primordial sounds seem to emanate from the Rock, attracting the girls to come closer. They peer into each womb-like crevice and ascend its peaks, Weir again filming the rock crags such that they appear to take on human facial characteristics, a stoic entity that cannot be understood.
As they reach the top, spinning around in the sun, DP Russell Boyd’s hazy, gauzy camera achieves its full effect, the music reaches its zenith, and all but Edith remove their stockings and shoes. Then, in a final haunting and slow-motion climb, the three girls disappear without a trace, awash in a trance-like aura of compliance and perhaps even transcendence at whatever lies ahead for them. Edith, hysterical, chooses to not follow them and runs back to the rest of her class, wherein we find out that one of the teachers, Miss McCraw is also missing (later, Edith will profess to having seen her climbing up the rock as she was descending, dressed only in her underwear). The police are called in and a search commences, but no signs of the girls are found.
While of course there is the tragedy inherent in the missing girls, the film spends more time on the devastating aftermath, showing how this disappearance begets obsession, madness, hysteria, and further death. Without diving in to each individual storyline, those who attempt to search out the meaning and reason for the disappearance are driven to extremes by the lack of answers. When Irma, is later found in plain sight at Hanging Rock, with no signs of foul play apparent she is unable to relay any additional information, further frustrating and conflicting the people of the town. It all leads to a finale that sees us left with a man who is haunted by Miranda’s ghost, another man who unknowingly loses his sister, gradual hysteria throughout the school that leads to its eventual shutdown, a homicide, and a probably suicide at the site of the rock (the person is “believed” to have fallen while attempting to climb the Rock). The inability to deal with the loss of these girls effectively drives the town mad.
Weir manages to put a distinctly Australian viewpoint into the standard horror conventions. I particularly like how Peter Hutchings puts it, that the film aims to provide “a peculiarly Australian sense of the apocalypse.” Most of this stems from the location and how it plays towards the distinctly Australian feelings about their natural surroundings. This relationship is perhaps a little more on display in Weir’s next film, The Last Wave, but that underlying sense of mystery, awe, and anguish that comes from nature is located at the core of this film as well.
Not being Australian myself, I point to two native reviewers to help provide some clue as to why this connection with nature is so pivotal to the underlying dread that permeates throughout the film. As Roderick Heath so elegantly puts it in his definitive review of the film, Picnic At Hanging Rock “successfully defined the latent unease that has always rested beneath Australians and their sense of their own nation’s landscape and the world in general, that is, a catastrophic sense of nature and paranoia about a continent that promised so much bounty and proved to be little more than a great desert with relatively small regions of fecund earth.” Author Neil Rattigan goes on to say that “there is also a hidden side to the cultural perception of the bush; a place of primeval terror, implacably hostile to human existence. That is why Picnic at Hanging Rock is so successful. It does not attempt to locate the supernatural malevolence of the bush in comprehensible fears — The how and why are not merely inexplicable; they don’t have to be explained.”
So, what does it all add up to? Theories abound: Is it a deeper look at some sort of conflict, whether that be between man/nature, rich/poor, or colonist/native with the girls acting as a sacrifice? Is this all about the horrors of repressed sexuality with the phallic rocks and the stripping of the garments being symbolic of the girls having some sort of sexual awakening? Have the girls who choose to enter the Rock and disappear transcended this life, achieving some form of angelic enlightenment that escapes those they leave behind? Or is it nothing more than a tragic look at innocence lost? Weir refuses to give a solid explanation, letting any or all of these have some sort of credence.
In the end though, searching for a meaning here is akin to searching for the lost girls. Perhaps nothing is more haunting and horrifying than that unnerving lack of a satisfying resolution to a mysterious occurrence. We crave closure to something that we can’t understand and not getting that closure is a doorway to hysteria and madness. Our senses are scarred with the haunting feeling of seeing the girls for that final time, wordlessly turning their backs to us and walking to somewhere unknown. They are gone without a trace, an empty feeling that gets at the elemental basis of horror. The unsettling truth is that the disappearance of the four women is always going to be left unresolved, vague, and enigmatic. Fear arises from not knowing and in having no one to blame for the loss of the girls. Weir’s film provides no answers and nothing for us to align our outrage against, just the terror of the unknown and images of ghosts that linger in our minds.
(See more screencaps at Troy’s blog, here)
(this film appeared on Troy’s list at #13, Jamie’s at #16, and Kevin’s at #44)