Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

picnic_hanging_rockThe most problematic element of Picnic at Hanging Rock is that it will likely soar right over the heads of most viewers born after 1985.  Thrillers and suspense yarns have had their high principles undercut by overused conventions and stylized pop that have contributed to the waning appeal such stories used to make on our conscious perceptions of grand thematic ideas.  In 1975, director Peter Weir could make this film without having to live under the heavy shadow of hockey mask clichés or Scream parodies.  Today, this is a rare find, and a lovely blend of genres and textures.

On Valentines Day in the year 1900, the girls of Mrs. Appleyard’s College prepare for a day-long visit to Hanging Rock, a 500 foot tall dormant volcano.  Four girls separate from the group to explore the rocky base and attempt a climb the rocky slopes.  Three of them never reemerge. As the hour grows late, their caretaker attempts to locate them, and disappears as well.  The one girl left behind arrives at the base screaming, witness to an invisible horror.

There is no easy way to classify Picnic. Rather than shape the film’s horror around a conventional villain, Weir instead molds it from the chaotic, unhealthy mind of unchecked, unmeasured desire.  Every character yearns—be it the school girls’ romantic longings, or the cold, rigid pursuit of strict behavior and pragmatic, passionless logic shown by some of the teachers.  The disappearance of the girls is only the catalyst that cracks each character’s safeguards and strips away all pretenses, revealing their inner strength, or frailty.

This is not to say that the film is without any dramatic tension.  Weir takes his time to pull his narrative threads taut. Certain moments ring with the ticking clock of suspense that characterized much of Hitchcock’s work.  Yet these moments never lead to any of the presumed ends an audience would expect.

As the mystery surrounding what happened on the rock unfolds, the film offers little to no answers.  It extends, in a way, the notion that what you cannot see is much scarier than what you can.  Instead, Weir postulates that what you don’t know — what remains unsolved, irresolute — is more disquieting than what you do.   This would shock any viewer accustomed to the paint-by-numbers scare fests that fill theaters today, but to succumb to the temptation to provide all the answers in a neat package at the end betrays the film’s core motivations: character and desire.

Desire abounds among the film’s players—between one student for another, between two boys watching the girls hike up the rock, and between the teachers and their ideals. The opening trip to Hanging Rock is fraught with the girls’ warm and silly romantic ruminations on love, purpose and eternity; the kind of vague naivety common to young ladies on the cusp of womanhood, their pure ideals as yet untainted by the world’s cruelty.  Chief among them is Miranda (Anne Lambert), a lovely, graceful presence whom one character even calls a “Botticelli Angel.”  Juxtaposed to Miranda is Sara (Margaret Nelson), ordered that day by Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) to stay behind at the school under the pretense of falling grades.  Sara’s aloof nature separates her from her peers, though she retains a strong attachment to Miranda, hinting at her own buried desires for love, friendship, and perhaps even companionship.

Most of the cast serves the material beyond what’s on the page.  Certain portions of the film focus so much on the girls’ charged emotionalism that it almost overwhelms.  The film receives a breath of life from smaller moments and characters influenced by healthier expressions of desire—two caretakers discussing the bizarre details of the mystery, the calm persistence of the constable’s investigation into the case.

Weir’s choice of composer Bruce Smeaton for the film’s score anticipates his later selection of Maurice Jarre for Dead Poets Society.  In both films, the score complements the tension surrounding pivotal moments, playing soft chords that grow steadily louder as the moment evolves.  Smeaton even manages to capture the eerie ambiance of the late summer quiet.

This delicate, methodical study on desire earns its merits by exploiting the strengths of film as a medium.  Weir spends as much time on the intricate landscape of his characters’ faces as he does on the jagged outcropping of rock, lending a strange, ethereal bent to the world of the film.  No doubt some viewers will feel jilted by the film’s lack of closure, but the resolution does offer a sort of close, suggesting in the end that Weir wanted to give us a fable — tough comeuppance awaits the heart that blindly surrenders to its desires.


1 Response to “Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)”

  1. 1 Fearless (1993) « The Fuming Pew Trackback on January 20, 2009 at 12:58 pm

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