Picnic at Hanging Rock

All that you see on DVD is but a dream within a dream
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1975
Director: 
Peter Weir
Starring: 
Rachel Roberts, Vivean Gray, Anne-Louise Lambert, Margaret Nelson
The Setup: 
Three girls and a teacher vanish while on a picnic to this Australian rock outcropping in 1900.
Discussion: 

I had heard of this early Peter Weir film as being very interesting and mysterious, with somewhat of the atmosphere of a horror film, so I put it to the top of my list. I was watching it for the first 30 minutes and was SO into it, when my disc started skipping and I was forced to watch the ending of Harper Valley PTA.

A few days later I watched the whole thing. The movie opens with this frankly stunning shot of this Australian landscape with black trees and shockingly orange earth, then the fog clears and we see this mountain in the distance, and as you keep watching the fog settles down over the ground and obscures the trees. With that first shot, this movie HAD ME. And how did they do that? Was it time-lapse? I assume it was some kind of special effect, but it was pretty gorgeous. Then we hear a quote from Edgar Allen Poe, “All that we see or seen is but a dream within a dream,” which is placed in such a way that we must assume this is a statement on how we are to regard the film that follows. We are introduced to Miranda, this ethereal blonde, and one of the students at this girls’ school. We later find out that many of the girls at this school are bastards or orphans, so that’s what they’re doing there. Miranda, in a wonderful shot that finds her face framed by an oval mirror, tells Sara, this plain but passionate girl with long brown hair, that Miranda won’t be around much longer, and that Sara must learn to love another. Sara seems pretty upset by this. Now, pay attention to those ovals these girls are often framed in, because they’re meant to evoke the valentines and picture frames we often see at the beginning, and will later come to cast an image back of the elusive fantasy of innocence and dreamy girlhood that these girls stand for.

So most of the girls are going on, you guessed it, a picnic to hanging rock, this big geological formation out in the wilds of Australia, like those Australians seen to have occurring every five feet. Sara is told that she must stay behind. We later find out that this is because her parents have stopped paying her bills and cannot be reached. The girls, in their white dresses and hats, and photographed as though they are a gaggle of geese, and are explicitly compared in one shot. This is in addition to the stuff coming up later in which Miranda is repeatedly compared to a swan. They are told to behave in a proper manner and be sure to keep their gloves on until after they pass the one town on the way, and we see lots of intriguing shots of them driving further and further out into the wilderness. The music thus far has been mostly classical, which is stupendously effective, and later we have some Zamfir on the pan flute [I kid you not, but it actually works], and some cheesy horror movie music, which we’ll discuss in a second. On the ride the severe Ms. McCraw delivers a snooty and sexualized talk about how Hanging Rock was created by the “viscous magna forcing itself up” through the surface. She is wearing an extremely red dress as will be mirrored later, and mentions that the rock is at least a million years old. “Waiting a million years, just for us,” one of the girls ominously says.

We then join some other picnickers on the rock, including one cute but somewhat shifty redhead who steps over to spend some time with the coach driver or footman or whatever. It’s one of those “rich youngster with the virile servants” moments, and is very homoerotic, which seems to play against the female homoeroticism we had earlier between Miranda and Sara. Tell me it’s not homoerotic when the redhead and the footman are sharing a bottle of wine, and the redhead moves to, then decides NOT to wipe the footman’s spit off the bottle before taking a sip. Genet would be proud.

Meanwhile the girls are all draped languidly over the rock, when Miranda and three other girls [including a chunky, whiny one] decide to wander off and climb the rock. The style of the movie goes overboard to establish the rock as a kind of haunted place with intelligence and a soul, though unfortunately they chose to do that through this hysterical horror movie music that I found a little over the top when set against the tone of the rest of the film. At that point my friend next to me turned and said “Does it seem like this suddenly became super cheesy?” to which I had to agree. It reverts back into mysterious soon enough, but will step it’s toe over the cheese line from time to time. We see a bunch of ants, and soon one of the girls is looking down on the picnickers and talking about them as though they were ants. The chunky one starts complaining, and the other three just walk off. The chunky one follows, and they all come to this clearing and spontaneously fall asleep. We see bugs and a skink [I THINK that’s a skink] walk over them. Then they wake up, and the three pretty ones walk away again, and the chunky one freaks out!

Next we see the headmistress waiting, as the girls haven’t gotten back yet, and soon one of the supervisors returns and says that they left Ms. McCraw at the rock, and that three of the girls have disappeared. The chunky one has NOT vanished, and she says that she saw Ms. McCraw walking up the rock in just her underwear. Then there’s a lot of agonizing, a lot of searching, etc. The redhead feels partly responsible, and also feels a bond with Miranda after they exchanged a glance with her, and he tries to persuade the footman to go with him.

SPOILERS > > >
Eventually one of the girls, Irma, is found. She doesn’t remember anything after a certain point. Soon she is going to go home to her parents, and she comes out dressed for her trip in a deep red dress that recalls Ms. McCraw’s from the beginning. There is a good scene [that really freaked my friend out] wherein the others girls, who are trying to stand still and be good, suddenly explode and grab at her, demanding to know what happened.

We never really do find anything out, but a lot of suggestions are placed and paths enticingly laid out. Sara is expelled from the school because no one is paying for her, and she will be placed within a home for orphan girls, which we are led to believe will be pretty horrible. We also receive a powerful suggestion that the footman is Sara’s long-lost brother. And at the very end we find out that the headmistress, who was having an affair with Ms. McCraw, goes to the base of Hanging Rock and kills herself.
< < < SPOILERS END

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am probably wrong about this and there’s probably a lot more to it than I understood, but it seemed as though the movie started to deflate after the girls disappear. That whole first half hour was electrifying, but after that the tone changes and things get a bit more dull. Investigations, searching for girls… it’s all things we’ve seen before, and I suspect that I let me attention relax a bit during these parts and probably missed some important things. Nevertheless, that is the impression I’m left with, and from what I read on the IMDb, I’m not the only one. And while I LOVED the whole self-consciously arty tone of most of it, but especially the first 30 minutes, after a while I got sick of seeing Miranda paired with swans and formations in the rock that kind of look like faces, and was like “all right, all right, she’s a fucking swan, I GET it.”

So what’s it all about? Most people to take it to be about the repression of female sexuality in the English / Australian society [Australia part of the British empire at the time], and there’s certainly a great deal of that there, but I think there’s also a lot about the dreamy romanticism of girlhood, with all this sincere emotion and poetry of the mind, contrasted with the vastness and sexuality of the wilderness and the rock. And then toward the end we start comparing the sexuality of the young girls with the sexuality of the older women. And all of it is just swirled into a big, compelling stew that all reflects in on itself without making any definitive statement. But they did tell us it was all “a dream within a dream” before the whole thing even started.

I can see now that this film must have been an influence on The Virgin Suicides, which really is similar and also provides no obvious answers. Overall, definitely a good choice when you’re in the mood for something mysterious, atmospheric and elliptical. I really love movies that are purposely and obviously trying to be “arty” [as long as it WORKS], and this one will show you two hours of intrigue and leave you with lots to chew on later.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s very interesting, mysterious and well done.