Australian Cinema (1988)

Book author Brian McFarlane

Picnic at Hanging Rock references

Factoid: The Australian Film Development Corporation contributed in some manner to the making of the film. (p.25)

Factoid: "...Weir's next film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, was screened in the Marketplace in 1976, and subsequently scored considerable success in Europe and South America. (p. 28)

Factoid: "Picnic at Hanging Rock never did well in the U.S. (p. 29)

"Picnic at Hanging Rock, one of the crucial films of the revival, made much of the surface beauty of the Australian scene, with its lurking horror, a physical representation of director Peter Weir's fascination with the way the extraordinary and irrational lurk threateningly at the edges of the ordinary and the rational." (p.42)

"No less important in the way the new Australian cinema has sought to present and interpret the country's history are such wholly fictional films as...Picnic at Hanging Rock with its perception of European influences incongruously at work in an Australian girls' school at the turn of the century..." (p. 45)

"A later chapter will consider in more detail how recent Australian films have depicted the landscape and the way human life has adapted to it. Most effectively its representation has generated a powerful effect of menace: one thinks of the inscrutable, ancient monolithic outcrop in Picnic at Hanging Rock..." (p. 60)

One of the most seductive films of the 1970s was Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Based on Joan Lindsay's banal and snobbish novel about the disappearance of a party of girls on the eponymous rock, Weir and his collaborators (particularly cameraman Boyd and composer Bruce Smeaton) have created a genuinely haunting experience. The film's meaning is organized around its presentation of two basic images: Hanging Rock and Appleyard College, two monoliths set down incongruously in the Australian bush. The incongruity of the College is established at first by a frontal shot which reveals it flanked by oddly exotic palm trees. The school's teaching and values are plainly those of middle-class English refinement and it is shortly to be defeated by the hostility of an alien environment. Rock and College come together in the adventure of the picnic; the College is 'tested' by the Rock, and disintegrates under the strain, while the Rock remains wholly unmoved by the College's venturing upon it.

Joan Lindsay devotes considerable descriptive writing to evoking these two monoliths, between which - physically and metaphorically - the drama of both novel and film takes place. The college is 'an architectural anachronism in the Australian Bush,' with gardens in which 'Heavy-headed dahlias flared and drooped in the immaculate flower-beds, the well-trimmed lawns steamed under the mountain sun.' As for the Rock, it is introduced in full view as the school party gets its first sudden glimpse of it: 'Directly ahead, the great volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty plain.' The incongruity of the Rock is spatial rather than temporal; it has nothing to do with time, whereas the College is out of place and out of time. The film eloquently picks up the novel's suggestions in this matter and creates what is still one of the most visually arresting experiences in modern cinema, Australian or otherwise.

It begins evocatively with a bird call heard over a pale wash of trees and mist from which Hanging Rock emerges, at first distant and then in close-up, always ominous, in the way that Ford makes great rock faces threatening and mysterious in The Searchers (1955). By starting with the Rock, Weir's film ensures that the audience has that image-alluring, threatening-in mind during the subsequent scenes at the College. The connection is enforced by the way the brooding rock face is replaced by an exquisite girl's face on a pillow. Both Rock and College acquire a powerful physical presence in the film, camera angles accentuating the way they dominate their landscapes. Tactfully, each comes to acquire a pervasive sexual connotation as well; the smothered sexual yearning of the College (the film begins on St. Valentine's Day, 1900, and there is a susurration of sexual excitement in shots of girls washing, dressing in flimsy white, sighing over their lushly-worded cards) is about to be let loose for some of the girls in answer to the phallic invitation of the Rock. Weir has claimed, in answer to a question about the film's exploitation 'of sexuality in an environment which represses it',

"I was never really interested in that side of the film. I didn't see it as part of its theme. I remember when I went to London for the promotion, that was the area that most interested the British critics. Comments ranged from talk of repressed sexuality to the less subtle, talking about lesbianism and so on. But it didn't interest me. For me the grand theme was Nature, and even the girls' sexuality was as much a part of that as the lizard crawling along the top of the rock. They were part of the same whole; part of the larger question."

Whatever Weir's conscious awareness of what he is doing, the film insistently links the sense of sexual repression to the College, that of sexual liberation in the Rock, and in the failure of some of the girls to return, including Miranda (Anne Lambert), the most beautiful of all, it seems to suggest that sexual awakening is as potentially dangerous as it is irresistible.

The large metaphorical significances which attack to both Rock and college are carefully articulated at local levels. As the picnic party draws towards it, the Rock is seen as the only outcrop on the yellow, summer-dry plain; up close, the party succumbs to a post-luncheon drowsiness at the foot of the Rock, as if its influence has begun to exert itself; and there are striking close-ups of the natural life on the Rock, all of it seen as effortlessly belonging there in a way that the girls necessarily do not. And during the girls' climb, the camera tilts and lifts and pans to suggest, in collaboration with the effect of Gheorghe Zamphir's pan pipes, a place both enticing and threatening. In the case of the College, the sun-filled opening sequences gradually give way to a gathering darkness as it takes on the grim knowledge of what Hanging rock has done. Inside, there are numerous shots of the Headmistress (Rachel Roberts) losing nerve and dignity in pools of light surrounded by gloom; outside, in the College hot-house, Whitehead (Frank Gunnell), the gardener, asks 'Did you know that there are plants that...that can move?", and illustrates by touching a leaf which suddenly closes, 'as if touched by the withering rays of the sun'. The screenplay notes: 'The demonstration has a chilling effect on Tom [the handyman], even if he doesn't quite know why. Whitehead has made his point about nature and he moves away, a trace of a smile on his lips.' And the films cuts to a low-angle view of the 'sharp twisted stone peaks of Hanging Rock'. Weir and his screenwriter Cliff Green have registered in micro-and macro-terms the kinds of threat that nature contains for them, and the film finds in its chosen physical settings forces profoundly disturbing as well as compellingly beautiful.

[My own comments: Such a plant is an example of thigmotropism, the response touch. Mimosa is one plant exhibiting this feature. Nothing mysterious about it at all].

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an important and rewarding film from points of view considered elsewhere in this book, but it is crucial to this chapter because it provides some of the most eloquent visual statements about the physical nature of Australia and its relations to man's place in the continent. A picnic in the Australian bush is an idyll that should be undertaken cautiously; the landscape may look passive from a distance but up close it may be fraught with danger for the uninitiated. (pages 72-74)

...until well after the Second World War the education available to Australian children was very much dominated by English traditions, often at odds with the more relaxed social modes of this country." (p. 134)

Whichever kind of institution the adolescents find themselves in, they are not likely to be inspired by what they are taught; the put-upon Sara (Margaret Nelson) in Picnic at Hanging Rock is made to memorize a poem by Mrs Felicia Heymans, 'one of our most famous English poets' while her own efforts at writing are dismissed...(p. 139)

[My own comment: What is so different between this and how education is now, even in the U.S.?]

The girls in Picnic are, with the exception of fat Edith (Christine Schuller) who is first glimpsed counting her St. valentine's day cards as possessions, their romance lost on her, ripe for sexual awakening. Weir may well be more interested in 'other' areas; sounds, smells, the way hair fell on the shoulder, images - just plain pictures. On the basis of the film itself, the sexual motif works controllingly in making those images mean. What we have seen at the College - St. Valentine's Day; Sara's crush on Miranda (Anne Lambert), and swan-like, in an image the film repeats; the girls in their virginal white, who are like sympathetic Mlle de Potiers (Helen Morse- and unlike the other teachers- has encouraged the reading of a sexual sub-text. The Rock, on the other hand, is presented as alluring as well as ominous, as inviting a release from sexual inhibition. the three girls who disappear, leaving Edith behind to run screaming back to the rest of the school party, seem almost to float through the trees as if to the embrace of a lover. The young English aristocrat, Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard) and the Australian groom, Albert Crundall (John Jarratt), who observe them, respond - the one with quivering sensitivity, the other with crude realism- to the sexual challenge of the fleeting image. The climax to the film's persistent use of the sexual motif as a link between Rock and College comes in the scene in which Irma (Karen Robson), restored from the Rock and recovered from her ordeal, visits the school gym to say goodbye to her fellow pupils. Into the oppressive scene comes Irma, clad in a long crimson cloak and crimson hat, a striking figure as she appears in the doorway, flanked in the frame by the two rows of girls doing posture exercises. Whatever has happened to Irma on the Rock- and she has refused, or been unable, to tell- it has changed from from romantic schoolgirl to assured woman. The girls sense a new - sexual?- knowledge about her and crowd round hysterically demanding explanations. (p. 153)

There is a distinction to be drawn between those films which set out to re-enact and interpret historical events and those which merely locate their narratives in the past. ...among the latter, which may be revealing about the periods in which they are set but are not subject to the constraints of authenticity enjoyed on the former group are... and Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The historical interest of Picnic at Hanging Rock is in its representation of a pervasive European influence incongruously at work in the Australian bush. The college run by Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) is clearly organized on English middle-class lines as indicated earlier. Elsewhere, in the scene of a lakeside garden party attended by the State Governor, the occasion is characterized by the playing of 'God Save the Queen' as the Governor leaves, and of Mozart's 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik', and by the upper-class English demeanor of the guests, contrasted with the relaxed Australian-ness of the groom (John Jaratt) who sits drinking beer at a remove from them. Only the menials in the film are presented as unequivocally Australian. Green's screenplay described the College as 'An island of hard stone and English garden, marooned in the bush, dreaming of Europe. Hopelessly'. This description encapsulates nicely the historical interest of the film; a newly transplanted, intrusive culture is ultimately swallowed up by the pre-history of its setting; and one of the film's fascinations is its representation of an historical phenomenon- the Anglo-Australian motif - which has been powerfully felt in the life and arts of this country.

Time Pulleine, writing in the BBC Radio Times in 1984, begins an article on a BBC-2 season of Australian films like this: 'For a decade now, the Australian film industry has been the toast of the world', and goes on to speak of Picnic at Hanging Rock which, 'with its meticulous period reconstruction and its refinement of visual atmosphere, has come to be seen as the 'typical' product of the Australian new wave.'

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