By Jeremy Carr.
Even if we weren’t told at the start that Picnic at Hanging Rock was about a group of girls who disappeared Saturday, Feb. 14, 1900 and were never seen again, it would become apparent almost immediately that this 1975 film was not going to end happily, or progress normally. Director Peter Weir, working off a script by Cliff Green (adapted from Joan Lindsay’s novel), presents Appleyard College in Victoria State, Australia, and the nearby wildness, as otherworldly locales with an air of haunting splendor. The first lines of the film, from Miranda (Anne Lambert), not quite the lead, but an individual of focus more than the others, hint at what’s to unfold: “What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” And henceforth this surreal, stunningly photographed picture proceeds as if indeed in a perpetual dream-state plagued by melancholic doom.
By way of a whimsical and deliberately hallucinatory technique, the opening sequences at the college introduce the primary characters – the girls as well as, most importantly, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) and Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray). Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd utilize not only diffused illumination to create an impression of enigmatic sensuality and mystery, but also slow motion and dissolves, resulting in a spellbinding visual peculiarity. “Poetic” would also describe Picnic at Hanging Rock, particularly early on and later during the more fantastic moments. But it’s perhaps music that has the most in common with the film, notably in terms of its atmosphere, the way it absorbs one into its creation. Aided by the oftentimes blank and trancelike intensity of the girls, and the evocative score by composer Bruce Smeaton and pan flute musician Gheorghe Zamfir, this is a movie that truly gets under one’s skin.
Lest it is shrouded by the ambiance, there is a story here. The girls travel to the “geological miracle” that is Hanging Rock, a massive volcanic formation that looms large over the neighboring woods. Of the students, only Sara (Margaret Nelson), a troubled girl who bears a perhaps more than friendly affection for Miranda, is left behind. Initially, the trip is pure bliss, with the girls delighting in being able to remove their gloves — once they’re appropriately distanced from town that is. Clothing proves to be a recurring, if puzzling, feature of Picnic at Hanging Rock. The incongruity of the girls’ formal wear in the wild is striking, out of place and seemingly out of time, even despite the period setting; and later, bits of clothing, either missing or remaining from the girls who vanish, cause perplexed distress.
Also picnicking in the forest is the Fitzhubert family. Son Michael (Dominic Guard) and valet Albert (John Jarratt) see Miranda, Irma (Karen Robson), Edith (Christine Schuler), and Marion (Jane Vallis) wander away from the group and explore the rocks. The girls appear as majestic visions to the two boys, and around this time, the film takes on a more pronounced supernatural tenor as all wristwatches are discovered to have suddenly stopped at exactly noon. It’s “something magnetic,” contends Miss McCraw, but as the four girls go deeper into the labyrinthine rocks, something further inexplicable transpires. Edith is ill and repeatedly decries the area being “nasty.” She stays back, but the other three venture further into a narrow crevasse, into, perhaps, another dimension. They vanish and Edith screams and runs away. And so it begins.
The boys are questioned, as is Edith, who when fleeing down the hill saw a red cloud overhead as she passed Miss McCraw running up the hill. Edith reveals that Miss McCraw, who has also now disappeared, was no longer wearing her dress. Michael is guilt-ridden for not having somehow watched over the girls, and after days of searching bear no results, he and Albert begin their own investigation. Michael tries to enter into the fracture where the girls disappeared, but something prevents him from moving forward. He succumbs to the pressure and the exertion and is found by Albert, who discovers that the disturbed Michael is clutching a piece of one of the girls’ dresses. As Albert goes back amongst the rocks, he amazingly finds Irma, traumatized but still alive. She has scratches to her hands and fingers, as if she clawed at something, and a bruise on her head, as if she was struck, but the rest of her body is unmarked. She has no shoes, socks, or corset, but rape is ruled out. She has no memory of what happened.
Nothing about this adds up, nothing ever will, and that’s the point. Picnic at Hanging Rock exists simply and effectively as a work meant to confound, to challenge, to perhaps even frustrate in its ambiguities and unsolved mysteries. When Michael is stricken by whatever it is that befalls him, over his anguished body Weir superimposes earlier scenes accompanied by snippets of dialogue. This sequence coalesces times when what characters said and did seem to clearly imply the mystery to come. We’ve seen these instances since the beginning of the film. Before leaving the school, Miranda knowingly says she won’t be around much longer. There’s talk of the rock waiting a million years, just for the girls. “We shall only be gone a little while,” cryptically says one student as she leaves. “A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves,” says another. Each time one of these phrases is uttered (“Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place” is another provocative line) the sense of impending doom is called to the fore. The same goes for the expressions of somber reverie, the tantalizing wave from Miranda as she and the other three walk off, the exchanging of glances that suggest something between suspicion and acknowledgement. From the start, these signifiers of ambiguity are relentless. And when Weir includes the montage of these moments, with so many seen all at once, overlapping, we expect them to present or at least hint at a solution of sorts. This is the moment in a mystery where the details of previous incidents are seen together and give rise to apparent significance, meanings that weren’t necessarily clear when they first occurred. This is how the viewer puts together the pieces and solves the puzzle. But nothing of the sort happens with Picnic at Hanging Rock. We’re given the baffling ingredients, but a recipe for a simple explanation doesn’t exist.
There are also times when symbolic imagery is explicit and seems to indicate an overt connotation. From high above, Edith looks down at the other picnickers and comments, “Except for those people down there, we might be the only living creatures in the whole world.” Cut to a high angle shot of the group of girls strewn against the rocks, laying every which direction. Cut to ants likewise mingling randomly amongst grass and discarded food. The associative montage suggests a related aimless existence, but where that goes and just how it plays into the totality of the film remains inconclusive.
As Vincent Canby notes in his review of the film, the open ending is bound to aggravate a certain portion of the audience (if the preceding events hadn’t already). “I can’t tell you how the story is resolved,” he states, “though some people will feel cheated.” So where does that leave a film like Picnic at Hanging Rock? Canby suggests it’s a type of horror film. It’s eerie enough, its haunting effect is indeed a lingering one, and with young girls tormented and screaming, it at the very least contains those hallmarks of the horror genre. However, to place this film into such a generic category would be an injustice to a movie that so obviously seeks to be something else all together, which it surely is. One of the great things about this film is Weir’s audacious — and successful — choice to intentionally present a mystery and make no attempt to solve it, to make a movie that resists classification, with a narrative and a style that defies convention and simplistic understanding or description. Its riddles may frustrate, but they’re presented as if an answer were just within reach, a solution so close that one wants to keep coming back to the film to make sure something wasn’t missed, a key wasn’t overlooked. And yet, even if no such solution is to be had, Picnic at Hanging Rock is such an extraordinary achievement that the ultimate uncertainty is worth the road it took to get there.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Sound on Sight and Moving Pictures Magazine.
Picnic at Hanging Rock was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection.