Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Written by Cliff Green
Directed by Peter Weir
The Australian New Wave was an explosion of cinema from the Land Down Under that lasted from 1970 through 1990. Many of the filmmakers involved branched into cinema outside their home country like George Miller (Mad Max) or Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof-Fence). Peter Weir is arguably the most successful of these directors, having had a very lucrative career in Hollywood through the 1980s. However, the gap between Weir’s projects grew as the years went on. His last film was The Way Back, released in 2010. I plan to look at his film catalog to figure out his familiar themes and techniques as a means to fully appreciate his work.
Weir’s first feature was The Cars That Ate Paris, a horror-comedy about automobiles going wild in a small rural town. That film won’t be included in this series as I would like to watch it under a different banner. However, it introduces an ongoing theme in Weir’s work: characters who become isolated from the greater society and must deal with a crisis. This could be a physical conflict or a psychological one, but Weir is very interested in examining characters in isolation from the institutions that generally protect and shield them.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is based on a novel that presents itself as a factual retelling, and the film adopts this guise of reporting the events. On Valentine’s Day, a group of students from the all-girls Appleyard College went on a picnic at the titular rock. They were chaperoned by their Math and French instructors. The film shows how a group of three girls and the Math teacher simply vanished while exploring the strange geological formation. This bizarre vanishing creates a crack in the school and the nearby town. The disappearance becomes a source of speculation and rumors. The character given the most focus is Sara, an orphan whose guardian has been unable to continue payment. She is in love with one of the missing girls, her roommate Miranda and falls into despair as it becomes clear Miranda isn’t coming back. She’s also saddled with the pressure of expulsion and being sent to what amounts to a servants’ school.
There is no clear explanation or resolution to the story. Only one girl returns, and she can’t recall anything from the period where she was missing. No physical evidence exists, so the trail goes cold, the people in the community simply accepting that this is just what it is. One of the crucial elements at work is the contrast between the ordered manners of Victorian society and the mysterious unknown nature of the Australian wilderness. Everything about Appleby College is regimented and controlled. The girls are given a structure to operate within and must politely ask for any deviation from that.
The missing girls are given permission to leave the larger group and wander around the rock. One of the first things they do is remove their shoes and socks/stockings. Then, they walk barefoot across the formation, their hands exploring it. In many ways, it is a very sensual image. These sequences are shot with several crossfades: seeing a girl’s face gazing off into the distance while a silhouette of another student dances is overlaid. The sense is that Hanging Rock is a conduit of some primal, natural power. The girls are drawn to it because it feeds their humanity greater than the cold, unemotional system they were born into.
Part of watching Picnic at Hanging Rock is coming to terms with the inability to know. From the first scene, Weird presents us with what appear to be clues and hints as to what is about to take place. After the girls disappear, we’re continually given more clues, slow close-ups on a person’s face or an object unnoticed by others. But then we reach the final scene and nothing. Even one distributor was enraged at a screening stating he had wasted two hours of his life. I knew full well going into this second viewing, I would get no resolution, yet I was still enthusiastic about watching it because I think I’m drawn to things that drip with mystery. I’d say David Lynch’s entire career has consisted of art that pushes the viewer to derive satisfaction from a lack of traditional narrative arcs.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film I read as being about the ultimate power of the natural world over our manufactured order. This is exemplified in the conclusion where the headmistress succumbs to drink when parents start pulling their students for the next school year. She’s already tormented Sara with the threat of expulsion and then locks Sara in her room to await being picked up by her guardian. The final moments have Sara found dead, throwing herself from her bedroom window and into the greenhouse below. Chaos has overtaken the once orderly school, and the adults in charge have no one to blame but themselves.
The world of the sensuous and sexual is the actual place of safety. We repeatedly glimpse the school’s maid Minnie (Jackie Weaver) post-coitus with one of the groundskeepers. They are some of the warmer scenes in the picture compared to the chilly interactions between the headmistress and the students. The lack of an answer also speaks to the human insistence for closure and Weir’s embrace of the unknowable nature of the universe. Victorian society attempted to categorize and make sense of natural chaos, but it was always going to fall to the power of more primal force. Weir reminds us that human understanding has limits; we will reach points where the objective nature of observation doesn’t work anymore. In those spaces, we must learn to let go and simply be in the moment, experiencing the universe for what it is rather than what we would prefer it to be. In the case of Sara, we see how the orderly sensible system of humans is a vicious and cruel one.