LIST CANDIDATE: PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Peter Weir

FEATURING: Margaret Nelson, Rachel Roberts, Anne Lambert, Martin Vaughan, John Jarrett, Helen Morse, Christine Schuler, Karen Robson

PLOT: The unexplained 1900 Valentine’s Day disappearance of four schoolgirls and a teacher haunts the residents and neighbors of an all-girl college in Australia.

Still from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s an subtle, indirect feature with a unique tone; the question is whether the diffuse symbolism and impudent refusal to explain its central event gets it from “curious” all the way to “weird.”

COMMENTS: “What we are or what we seem is but a dream, a dream in a dream,” says young Miranda, paraphrasing Poe in voiceover as we gaze at the lonely mountain of Hanging Rock rising out of the bush. We then see her wake. Is she having a premonition? (Later that morning, before she disappears, Miranda warns a school chum with a serious lesbian crush on her that she “won’t be here for very much longer.”) Don’t look for an answer to that question. Explanations do not come in Picnic at Hanging Rock; the movie is about its own lack of explanations. We naturally desire answers to life’s mysteries, but in Picnic‘s Victorian Australia, what is even more important is to maintain propriety. After four of her charges and one of her teachers disappear, the headmistress is most distressed when one of the girls returns with no memory of what happened to her. It’s worse than if none of them ever came back, because this sensational and mysterious restoration puts the story back on the front page of the papers and fans the public’s curiosity. Picnic throws out clues, or observations that have the general shape of clues, every now and then: scandalously, one of the girls who disappeared lost her corset! (The doctor confirms, to everyone’s relief, that the girl who returned was found “intact”).

What is the point of erecting a girls’ finishing school in the middle of the Outback, if not to provide a civilized outpost against the forces of sinful Nature? If Nature abducts a few of civilization’s foot-soldiers for Her own unknown purposes, then perhaps it is best not to know their fate; we should forget it, lest it turns out that something horrible has happened to compromise the girls’ honor. Still, people remain curious and prone to gossip, especially in the lower classes.  “There’s some questions got answers and some hasn’t,” advises an elderly gardener. “No,” objects his younger companion, “there’ll be a solution turn up directly, more’n likely.” But no solution comes. There is not even a central character in the story, only the central fact of the disappearance, around which subplots orbit. The movie is quiet, almost oppressively so, until finally the girls’ suppressed anxiety explodes: “tell us, tell us!” they cry. The teachers quickly quash the hysterical outburst. Emotions must be contained, propriety maintained, corsets tightened. If that means that nothing much appears to happen in the movie, then we still have freedom to dream. Picnic‘s gauzy meditation on sexual repression and loss can have a hypnotic effect on those susceptible to its mysterious moods, while others find it an inconclusive bore. Both sides have an argument, but in general, the good here outweighs the bland.

With its sunlight cinematography, period setting, and artistic ambition, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a natural acquisition for the Criterion Collection. Criterion’s edition collects numerous interviews with the principal cast and crew, but the extra of most interest to us is Weir’s 50-minute mini-feature Homesdale. This black comedy involves an insidiously authoritarian Australian resort where infamous murders are recreated over dinner, personalized subliminal messages are broadcast at night, and the talent show turns into a human sacrifice if you bomb. Tonally, Homesdale is a cross between and ; it’s well-acted and quite a bit weirder than Picnic, though not nearly as memorable. Seeing Homesale convinced Joan Lindsay, author of the original “Hanging Rock” novel, that Weir was the right man to handle the adaptation of her beloved work.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film of haunting mystery and buried sexual hysteria.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago-Sun Times (retrospective)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Simon,” who politely suggested it “might be worth a look.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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