By J.D. Lafrance
There is a fascinating air of mystery surrounding Peter Weir’s adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) that captivated me when I first saw it many years ago and continues to haunt me. While the story is a simple yet intriguing one its lack of closure is not. Several schoolgirls and their teacher go missing on a rather imposing rock out in the countryside on St. Valentine’s Day in 1900. The film tantalizes us with just enough clues and evocative imagery to keep us wondering just what happened. There are no easy answers only several theories and this is what keeps me coming back to the film. It is brilliantly directed by Weir and features a maddeningly elusive screenplay by Cliff Green and memorable performances from a cast largely made up of young girls. But perhaps the best performance comes from the most enigmatic character in the film – the Hanging Rock, an impressive geological formation that manages to be unsettling even on a bright, sunny day. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film that invites repeated viewings because it is the things that are left unsaid and the things that we don’t see that are obsessively analyzed by re-watching what is shown and what we learn from the enticing crumbs of information Weir and Green leave behind.
It is February 14th in 1900 and a group of schoolgirls from Appleyard College venture out to Hanging Rock near Mount Macedon in Victoria, Australia for a picnic. The establishing shot is that of the rock and this is significant because in many respects it is the most important thing in the film – the source of mystery. Weir employs some low level sound effects, a combination of wind and subtle rumbling that sets a disquieting mood. He puts us on edge right away as the opening credits play over a montage of the schoolgirls getting ready for their picnic. There are two shots early on that seem to play slightly in slow motion – that of Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) lying in bed, her eyes opening and looking over at her roommate Sara (Margaret Nelson) who smiles back at her in another shot. She does this in an ever so slightly forced way that seems subtly unnatural. It’s hard to put your finger on it but something is slightly off about these two girls.
After the credits end we are privy to a conversation between the two girls and find out that Sara is obsessed with Miranda to which the enigmatic girl tells her, “You must learn to love someone else apart from me, Sara. I won’t be here much longer.” What an odd thing to say! Does Miranda mean that she won’t at the school much longer or alive much longer? Is she somehow aware of what will happen later on? Has she planned her disappearance ahead of time? Miranda is a hard character to read as she maintains an unapproachable façade that anticipates some of the femme fatales in David Lynch films.
The headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) warns the girls not to go exploring the rock and to watch out for venomous snakes and poisonous ants. Are the filmmakers throwing that out there as merely a red herring, another theory to add to the collection? An odd thing happens en route to Hanging Rock. One of the accompanying teachers, Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) dishes factoids about it, in particular the rock’s age, and then goes into something akin to a trance as she talks about how it consists of volcanic rock. This goes on for a few moments before she snaps out of it. Has the rock somehow already put the zap on her? The girls arrive at Hanging Rock and the first shot is a low angle one with it looming ominously over them as they make a toast to St. Valentine. Miranda cuts into a heart-shaped cake with a rather large knife. Interestingly, all the clocks in the party have stopped at 12 and Miss McCraw reckons it is “something magnetic” even though it never happened before.
Marion (Jane Vallis), Miranda, Irma (Karen Robson) and with Edith (Christine Schuler) as a last minute edition, get permission to go up to the rock to make “a few measurements.” Miranda tells her teacher, Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse), not to worry as they’ll only be gone a little while. There is a long shot of the girls heading off to the rock. Miranda is last and turns to wave to her teacher. She waves back and Weir cuts to a close-up of Miranda as if to suggest that her teacher and classmates should study this well because it will be the last they’ll see of her. En route to the rock, the girls are spotted by two young men and one of them, Michael (Dominic Guard), becomes captivated at the sight of Miranda as evident in the slow motion point-of-view shot of her skipping across a small creek. This is followed by a close-up shot of her looking up at the rock. He is so drawn to her that he finds himself following Miranda to Hanging Rock but for some reason not all the way.
Once at the rock, all the girls look up with only Edith, who asked to come along, refusing to do so. Weir pans the camera around so that we get a real sense of place – the dense vegetation and woods that surrounds the rock and how the environment threatens to envelope the girls even before they ascend further. Once there, he films the girls from high overhead or from narrow passageways as if someone or something is watching them. Miranda seems to be the only one with an inkling of this and seems to be picking up on the rock’s vibe. While an exhausted Edith rests, Miranda and the other girls take their shoes and stockings off and climb further up the rock in their bare feet – rather unladylike at the time. Edith runs after them. The girls climb higher and look down at their classmates on the ground, regarding them rather clinically while Miranda says cryptically, “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.” Without a word, all four girls lie down simultaneously and go to sleep while the highest most part of the rock watches over them.
Miranda is the first to wake and she, Marion and Irma climb up further despite Edith’s protests. Edith screams in terror and we see her running frantically down the rock. Weir cuts to the remaining schoolgirls with Mademoiselle de Poitiers who informs Appleyard that they left Miss McCraw behind. She too has gone missing, presumably while looking for the girls. However, no one saw her leave because they were all asleep at the time. Edith returned screaming and all she admits is that the three other girls were still on the rock. She saw Miss McCraw in her underwear (?!). What is it about the rock that motivates women to discard articles of clothing? The rest of the film focuses on the search for the missing girls and teacher and the resulting fallout at the school. We are witness to the cruelty of the other schoolgirls and even the teachers, obviously upset over what happened, taking it out on the survivors. The tone shifts from an atmospheric horror film to a different kind of horror, more of a psychological one as it transitions into a fascinating study of human behavior. Weir shows how the dynamic between the remaining girls, specifically Sara and Edith, changes after Miranda, Marion and Irma go missing. A few more clues as to what might have happened are discovered but instead of providing answers they only pose more questions.
Like us, Michael is haunted by the whole affair and he can’t let it go. In a way, he is almost driven mad by his obsession with Hanging Rock. For example, his solo journey up the rock is unsettling as he too falls asleep on it, dreaming of seeing the girls walking up the rock as key lines of dialogue are repeated along with Edith’s scream.
I believe that this scene points to supernatural causes for the disappearance of the girls. Obviously, Michael can’t be hearing all of these voices but we are meant to hear them and interpret it as something otherworldly while metaphorically it represents the young man’s confused mind. It is here that Weir’s complex soundscape is at its best and most disturbing as Michael goes off the deep end. He soon passes his obsession on to another young man (John Jarratt) who is soon clamoring his way up the rock despite what happened to his friend.
Picnic at Hanging Rock had its premiere in Adelaide to critical acclaim. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “As a tantalizing puzzle, a tease, a suggestion of a forbidden answer just out of earshot, it works hypnotically and very nicely indeed.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Among other things it knows that there are some romantic longings, especially in the young, that are so overwhelming they simply cannot be contained. The result is a movie that is both spooky and sexy.” Timemagazine wrote, “This horrific tale is told with marvelous shadowry indirection and delicate lyricism. It is full of enigmatic silences, which create a nice, ironic tension between the film’s genteel manner and its really quite ferocious theme.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Stack called it “one of the most hauntingly beautiful mysteries ever created on film.” However, Newsweek magazine wrote, “His movie is stylish and entertaining, but what he is pushing as metaphysical profundity is closer to metaphysical mush.”
In some respects, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a coming-of-age story masquerading as a horror film. Young girls experience a waking nightmare with several of their classmates inexplicably disappearing. How does this affect them? Unlike many other horror films, Weir’s film spends a lot of time dwelling on the effect that the terrible event has on the survivors. No one is exempt, from the young classmates to the teaching staff. It forces some of these girls to grow up very fast while others regress, withdrawing into themselves.
Picnic at Hanging Rock ’s prevailing theme is that of obsession. First, there is Miranda’s obsession with Hanging Rock. There’s Sara’s obsession with Miranda. Finally, there is Michael’s obsession with finding Miranda, which he passes on to another young man. It is one of those horror films where the environment itself is the threat or monster. There is definitely something not right about Hanging Rock but Weir never tells us for sure. He is content to simply show how it affects those that come in contact with it. This is a film for those that like cinematic puzzles, watching them repeatedly to uncover some clue or detail perhaps overlooked previously. Unlike most horror films, Picnic at Hanging Rock is just as interested in the horrific event as with its aftermath. We see how the incident affects the townsfolk that reside near the school and also get glimpses of how the media have exploited it, shaping people’s views. It was Weir’s intention to “take the idea of the red herring and to embrace that cliché and pass through it and beyond it, to make so many allusions and connections with images that they were no longer red herrings, but something powerful and unknowable.” The disappearance of the girls has shattered lives and left others haunted forever, which Weir suggests are equally disturbing.