Criterion Discovery: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Background: Picnic at Hanging Rock is a 1975 mystery directed by Peter Weir and based on the novel by Joan Lindsay. It is regarded as one of the most notable films to emerge from Australian New Wave. The film was released as Spine #28 in November 1998. It received a Criterion Blu-Ray re-release on June 17th 2014. Peter Weir has one other film in The Criterion Collection, The Last Wave (Spine #133).
Story: On St. Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of private school girls and their teachers make a trip to the mountainous Hanging Rock. When three students (Miranda, Irma, Marion) and a chaperon (Miss McCraw) seemingly disappear within the recesses of the rock, the locals begin their search to find out what happened to the missing women.
The Film: Picnic at Hanging Rock may be the closest that film has ever come to replicating poetry. Like a poem, Weir’s film is centrally concerned with imagery, mood, and tone. The characters are less complex, fully-realized individuals in themselves but more ideas and feelings that speak to the broader complexities of society and humanity. They are lines and stanzas positioned to shed light, (or in some cases mask it) in order to shape the film’s central conceit.
Despite being a mystery film, Picnic isn’t concerned with how plot points add up in the service of revelation. For some this may be a frustrating viewing experience. My initial reaction was far less positive than it was upon later reflection. We’ve become so used to expecting a carefully constructed twist, but the twist of Picnic is that there isn’t one. We don’t get clear answers in terms of the disappearances. And Irma’s return and loss of memory during the film’s half-way point only makes extracting meaning from the film all the more difficult.
On one hand, it’s easy to say the film is a surreal, dreamlike experience, unpreoccupied with concrete meanings. Everything from the soft, golden lighting and repeated panpipe musical motifs of “Sus Pe Culmea Dealului” and “Doina Lui Petru Unc” all add to the dreamlike construction of the film. We could look at Picnic as an art film concerned with beauty for beauty sake, but to do so would ignore the ugliness at the heart of the film. There is at times an overwhelming sense of eeriness, a wrongness that buzzes in your ear as the narrative goes on. Weir lingers on the monstrous rock face, overcast skies given a red glow, and insects crawling over and picking at dropped bits of food. Like Lynch did in Blue Velvet over a decade later, Weir seems preoccupied with exploring the possibly sinister, unexplainable underside of the seemingly civilized and innocent. The film’s rapid shift between beauty and horror raises larger questions about what the women’s disappearance really means within the context of the film’s setting.
There’s an unmistakable sexual undercurrent running through the film. At the start of the film, the girls, dressed all in white, are reading romance poetry. It’s not an odd action given the film’s Valentine’s Day setting, but the choice of Valentine’s Day already establishes the larger theme at hand. One of the girls, Sara, who is kept from going to Hanging Rock for reasons never explained, has an infatuation with Miranda. This infatuation can be read as a romantic and perhaps the unsaid reason for her being kept from Hanging Rock is because her sexuality is different from the rest of the girls’. Hanging Rock can be seen as a monument to heteronormative sexuality, for those willing to explore it. When Miranda and the others decide to explore the rock, they become faint from red skies (menstruation) and then disappear into a passageway that could be viewed as vaginal. And thus this could all be read as the girls having chosen to explore their sexuality in a time where such things were frowned upon. Chaperone Miss McCraw runs to Hanging Rock without a skirt, further representing the wild flight to sexual freedom. But is freedom all there is within Hanging Rock?
When Irma is discovered by one of the young men obsessed with finding the women, she is battered and bruised. So the question is whether Hanging Rock rejected her or if she rejected Hanging Rock. Perhaps this development suggests that Irma, like Sara, has no place within the heteronormative foundation (both girls are ostracized from their peers to different degrees of severity). We could guess and say that those who remain inside Hanging Rock have been accepted and are content with their newfound sexual discovery, but if that’s the case, why does the film still feel so unsettling at its end? On one hand the discomfort could stem from the fact that while sexuality is something to set out for and explore, society rejects those that don’t fit within the structure of Hanging Rock (the film closes with the suicide of two characters unable to access Hanging Rock). Or it could stem from the fact that with the discovery of sexuality comes new pitfalls and missteps in which to avoid and traverse. Perhaps Picnic at Hanging Rock ultimately suggests that sex is just as much about freedom as it is entrapment– entrapment to the preoccupation with, action of, search for, and categorization of sex.
Supplements: The Blu-Ray re-release of the film is packed with extras that weren’t included in the original release. Features include an interview with Peter Weir, a behind the scenes, making of the film, a new on-set documentary featuring film scholar David Thomson, actress Rachel Roberts, and author Joan Lindsay and Peter Weir. Also included is Weir’s 1971 film, Homesdale, essays by Marek Haltof and Meagan Abott, and a new edition of Joan Lindsay’s novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Overall: When it comes to bonus materials, Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of Criterion’s best releases. The remastered film and audio transfer are absolutely gorgeous. And while the film itself is a major departure from our traditional mystery narratives, Picnic at Hanging Rock offers plenty to examine and discuss.
Criterion Grade: A
Film Grade: A