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Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

After the intriguing but flawed cult movie The Cars That Ate Paris, Peter Weir made Picnic at Hanging Rock, quite possibly Australia's first big international hit. Often incorrectly regarded as a true story, it's really based on a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay. The novel was originally approved by the author to be adapted onto film by a fourteen year old filmmaker called Tony Ingram, but once the film rights were officially bought, that version never got past about ten minutes of footage. It would be really interesting to see what a fourteen year old could do with material like this, but I guess we'll never know.

This version could easily be seen an excuse to watch young girls clad in white Victorian outfits string up each other's corsets and take off their stockings in soft focus for 115 minutes (cut down to 107 for the director's cut in a strange change from the usual trend). I'm sure there's a fetish that covers this sort of thing, but there's much more here than just fetish material. Like L'Avventura there's a mystery that is both the focus of everything in the film and completely meaningless in itself. What matters really isn't the disappearance of three schoolgirls and a teacher in rural Australia but the reactions that people take to that disappearance.

They're from Appleyard College, a private finishing school for young ladies, run by Rachel Roberts as Mrs Appleyard, looking a lot older and sterner in her black dress and large bun than she did in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. We're about as early in the twentieth century as you can get, being 1900 and it's St Valentine's Day, which prompts all the girls to create cards and dream of romance. After breakfast, all except one who has to stay behind and learn to recite poetry, travel by carriage to Hanging Rock, a volcanic formation only a million years old, in rural Victoria.

While they're supposed to stay in the picnic area and not actually go to the rock itself, four of them get permission from the French teacher supervising them to go and take measurements: Irma and Marion, dumpy and complaining Edith Horton and Miranda, a Botticelli angel, or so saith the French teacher. Needless to say they don't stop at the base, as they'd promised, they take off their shoes, climb higher and fall asleep in the sun. They appear to wake in some sort of trance state and disappear higher still, while one of them runs back to the camp in screaming hysterics. By the time she reaches the rest of the party she's lost her memory, later remembering only that as she descended from the rock, she saw a red cloud and Miss McCraw heading up without her skirt. Other than that, nobody knows anything.

There's a lot of atmosphere here, built in large part through isolation and a hypnotic soundtrack, full of drone and flute and soft sounds that retreat into the back of the brain to swim through. Nobody mentions this in the film but Hanging Rock appears to be some sort of mystical place. It wouldn't be surprising to find it to be a sacred place to the Aborigines or even tie into the Cthulhu mythos, which often talks of great cyclopean cities of stone rising out of the ground at bizarre angles. Some of the rocks even look like faces, great stone faces sleeping their way into mythology, making us wonder how the story would have turned out if this was a Norwegian fairy tale.

As I mentioned above, the story is really in the reactions. Mrs Appleyard sees the disappearance as something of an affront and is concerned more about the impact of the ongoing publicity to the enrollments at her school. Mlle de Poitiers, the French teacher, is deeply caring but unable to do much beyond. Miss Lumley, closest to the headmistress, is probably the best example of what such a school would turn out: prim, proper and utterly unprepared for reality.

The police investigate and search but to no avail. Only a young Englishman living nearby, who saw the girls go up the rock, has any success at all and that through dogged determination at the expense of his own health. Initially he appears to be guilty of something but he becomes the hero of the hour, finding Irma alive but weak high up on Hanging Rock. The girls themselves resent Irma for coming back without the others. Only Sarah, a young orphan girl stuck in a Dickensian subplot of class persecution, seems to have any key to the mystery but it isn't forthcoming.

And that's the point. We open with mystery and we end with mystery. The film isn't here to give us resolution, it's here to make us ask questions and it isn't crystal clear what the questions should be. That's why Picnic at Hanging Rock resonated and people are still talking about it over 30 years later. What it means depends on what the viewer brings to it and that makes it fascinating. It'll be interesting to see it again in a few years time and see how different it might seem. I bet it isn't like Mrs Appleyard's Bournemouth: blissfully unchanging.

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