New Australian Cinema (1980)

Edited by Scott Murray

Material on Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic enjoyed the greatest popular and critical success of the three (movies), but it is not a film which grows richer in recollection; occasionally it seems to find visual style an end it itself, and its central enigma (What did happen at Hanging Rock on St. Valentine's Day, 1900?) has to fight for attention with the film's pervasive sense of a smothered sexuality. The parallel suggested between the surface of giggling excited schoolgirls, with its suggestions of real but repressed desire, and the surface beauty of the Australian scene, with its lurking horror, could well have been developed further by Cliff Green in his otherwise capable screenplay. (p.62)

True works of fantasy-perhaps among the richest of films-are open-ended, suspending themselves between possible explanations. Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), for example, ends as it began, in mystery. It is up to the audience to investigate the film and take up the clues by which they are most intrigued.

"It's been waiting a million years, just for us," remarks one of the girls as they ride towards Hanging Rock. The film suggests that the disappearance is predestined. Also, it is St. Valentine's Day, and the year is 1900-the beginning of a century. All this lends an aura of great historical moment to what happens. The rock stands, as it were, apart from the rest of the world that surrounds it. One of the girls aptly comments that, from where they are, the people below look like ants, "possibly serving some function unknown to themselves."

On the rock, all watches stop at noon. Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) puts it down to magnetism. The supernatural interpretation is the literal one; time has stopped, and life on the rock exists in a different dimension. Time no longer follows a logical course of cause and effect. Rather, as Miranda (Anne Lambert) says, "Everything begins and ends at the right time"- perhaps at the same time, the frozen moment of noon.

The atmosphere of the rock is linked to a release of sexual constraints. The idea is conveyed by a visual comparison. At Appleyeard College pigeons sit on the grass, silent and still. When the school party arrives at the rock, birds fly out in a great roar, an explosion of activity. Similarly, the girls discover a new freedom, while seeming not to realize it themselves. The film superimposes, in slow motion, images of the girls taking off their stockings upon the dance-like sway of their bodies, an intimation of sexual experience.

These evocations of sexuality open up two interpretations: a rational and a supernatural. The rational explanation is that the girls are abducted by someone lying in wait on the rock. Later, one of the townspeople comments: "It must be someone from another town. No one around here would do such a thing!" Yet when Irma (Jane Vallsi) is found alive by Michael (Dominic Guard) she is "intact"; her head is bruised and hands scratched,but the rest of the body is unmarked.

[Interjection by me: how would anyone just happen to be lying by the Rock to ambush the girls? They would have had to know the girls were going to have a picnic, that the picnic would be at Hanging Rock, and even have a general idea of the time of the picnic. That begins to stretch the ambush theory fairly thin, in my opinion.]

Of all the girls who go on the expedition up the rock, it is Miranda who is presented as having a special awareness of the significance of what they are doing. it is even suggested that she has been gifted with a premonition of the disappearance. Early in the film she tells Sara (Margaret Nelson): "you must learn to love someone apart from me. I will not be with you for much longer." This might just mean she is going to another school, but the hint of the supernatural is strong. As well, the film's last shot returns to a gesture that is charged with great significance; her farewell wave to Mlle de Poitiers (Helen Morse), as if she is bidding goodbye to the world. The frame freezes as she turns her head, to stress that finality.

Twice in the film Michael thinks of Miranda, and Weir dissolves to a shot of a swan, so that the two figures appear for a moment in the image together. This carries the hint of a mythic explanation, for in Greek mythology Leda bore children to Zeus, who had intercourse with her while she was in the form of a swan. Miranda, too, has perhaps been borne away by a god in a recurrence of the legend. This is reinforced by Mlle de Poitiers describing her resembling a Botticelli angel. But what of the others? Miss McCraw? Irma, left on the rock? And why does Michael appear to go through much the same experience as the girls? The audience is allowed to become as skeptical of the supernatural interpretation as of the rational one. Neither reading will guarantee a full, secure knowledge.

For the characters in the film, as well as for the audience, a crisis arises. How does one even begin to understand a mystery when it is not only the extraordinary events on the rock that prove elusive?- nature itself, in its most common manifestations, also contains elements of the marvelous. As Michael makes his way up the rock, Weir cuts to the animals around him-watching, knowing (as we might imagine). In the greenhouse at Appleyard College, when one man insists "There's gotta be a solution", his friend demonstrates the life in one of his plants: "Did you know they could move?" This theme is echoed in the tiniest details. The girls hold a seashell to their ears-and how does a small shell contain the sound of the entire sea?

The horror of never knowing, or understanding, is all pervasive. Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) remarks, after Irma is found "It's worse that only one has been found." Having no memory of what occurred, Irma, in time, is hated by all. Michael, and then her school friends, batter her with the question "What happened?", but they know it will never be answered. Ironically, at one point, the girls sing the hymn Rock of Ages, but rather than praising the God whose wonders are known and loved, and whose church is everlasting, the song brings one of the girls to tears, reminding her of that other rock of ages which escapes the certainties of Christian religion. it is this horror that finally, as the closing narration tells us, sends Mrs. Appleyard to her death; she falls while trying to climb the rock.

The film suggest meaningful connections, but only to frustrate the audience. What are they to make of Sara and Albert (John Jaratt), brother and sister orphans who, separated in life, are touched by the mystery of the rock? Sara pines for her brother while she is alone; Albert seems to have a vision in a dream (coincidence or telepathy?) as Sara, utterly desolate at the loss of Miranda and unable to remain at Appleyard college, kills herself.

Other relationships in the film are left ambiguous. As Mrs. Appleyard becomes more and more distraught, she confesses to Mlle de Poitiers her total dependence on Miss McCraw. Implied is a sexual attachment, the repression of which was so complete that it now expresses itself in revulsion: "She let herself be raped on that rock!" Similarly, Miranda's goodbye wave to Mlle de Poitiers suggests an important link between the two women that is never clarified.

Such details are left in abeyance, and thus suspends the audience in what the French call significance-traces of meaning, fragments of sense, but never a coherent, fixed, final truth delivered easily to us by the film's end.

I have dealt with Picnic in some detail because I believe it to be the finest film of its kind produced in Australia. Its excellence is typical of the classics of the fantasy genre..." Picnic also provides a model of the fantasy film, in which a hesitation is set up between two kinds of explanations: the rational and the supernatural. The film, and the audience, is put in a position of deciding whether something is, or isn't. Most fantasy films can be discussed in this way.

Picnic is full of oppositions (masculine/feminine, Australian/European, vulgarity/cultivation) and stereotypes (the fat girl, the orphan, the Olympian headmistress, the lovely French mistress). Their banality is rescued by the beauty of the images, which at the same time intensifies their rigidity. there is a kind of sexual hierarchy in Picnic, with a form of happy animality being the province of the lower classes. The sensual and already worldly charms of the dark-haired Irma (Jane Vallis) are of a higher order; but it is the ethereal loveliness of blonde Miranda (Anne Lambert) that is the pinnacle of desirability. Miranda, however, is the chosen one of the rock, reserved for a meeting with a strange and phallic force of nature which takes her beyond the impure physicality of this world. Picnic is the positive and lyrical expression of the devaluation of a realized female sexuality which dominates the men of The Office Picnic.

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