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A Dream within a Dream: The Criterion Collection presents ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’

Haunting, despite often being drenched in southern Australian sunlight, and that is in no small part to the understated performances within…

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Directed by Peter Weir

Australia – 107 min. Color
Criterion Collection #29.

Hanging Rock is an actual place, an actual rock as it were, situated in the southwestern part of Australia, in the state of Victoria.  Often described vaguely as a ‘geological formation’, some light Wikipedia hunting has unearthed a more descriptive term for this rippling land mass that looks like it is part volcanic sponge, part aquarium décor: mamelon, which comes from the French word for ‘nipple’.  Would it be a bad case of over-intellectualizing if I said that this racy imagery was a significant metaphor in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, a film that deals with, among other things, the secret longings of sheltered, pubescent schoolgirls in turn-of-the-century Australia?  Probably.  Then again, probably not.
For the film, like Rebecca before it and The Virgin Suicides after, is very much about women, women before they are women, and how their firmly-capped longings breed interior worlds so endless that, when left rampant, can overwhelm even reality.  It is a film that is as much about the fear of a young girl’s budding womanhood as it is about a tragedy that occurred one sunny afternoon in February.  Like all good, infuriating mysteries, you are left with no answers at the end, the unknowable thick over the closing credits.  What you leave with, instead, is that quiet engulfed feeling of stepping suddenly into a vastness that is misunderstood to all but for a few who are no longer here.

The story circles around the mysterious disappearances of three students and a teacher, all female, who go missing after a Valentine’s Day class excursion to Hanging Rock.  The tragedy affects the remaining pupils, their teachers and the local townsfolk deeply, but that the women disappear without a trace, without earthly clues, leave them unsettled in even deeper ways.

When we are first introduced to the girls of Appleyard College, we see them as almost too-innocent: girls who hail a statue of St. Valentine before a midday meal, girls who revel at the small luxury of being allowed to take off their gloves, girls trapped in leggings and hats and starchy white dresses as the wild bush country sky render them translucent in sunlight.  They are, for the most part, obedient, their rebellion strictly confined.   It is as though they are already ghosts even before they become immaterial, their knowledge and desires belittled by the trappings of what is expected of them as young ladies .  Those left behind are charged with the impossible task of searching blindly for creatures whose motivations are no less mysterious in their absence.  Some, like the unbendable headmistress of the college, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) try to treat tragedy as commonplace, resuming everyday life with dubious success.  Others, like a young Englishman who happened to be on the Rock the same day as the doomed picnic (Dominic Guard, admirably intense as one of the few main male characters), obsess over the disappearances, scouring the Rock with a determined optimism bordering on madness.  When one of the disappeared suddenly returns, she is shunned and, in one disturbing scene, attacked by her peers in a sudden outpouring of bottled anger.  They demand to know what happened, where the others have gone, what  happened on the Rock.  They don’t find out and neither do we.

The film is haunting, despite often being drenched in southern Australian sunlight, and that is in no small part to the understated performances within.  Roberts, with her clipped, Judi Dench-esque tones, makes brittleness sympathetic and Ann-Louise Lambert, as the missing Miranda, is effortlessly ethereal, truly living up to the description given to her character as being a “Boticelli angel”.  There is also Margaret Nelson, as the quiet and pained Sara, whose devotion to Miranda gives her the largest sense of loss in the wake of the disappearances.

Criterion gives you a lovely transfer, worthy of Russell Boyd’s sun-and-candlelight-drenched cinematography.  The extras are skimpy, not much more than a theatrical trailer and a brief essay by Vincent Canby in the liner notes.  It doesn’t really matter because Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of those films that work better the less you know about it.  After a second Wikipedia hunt, I discovered that the novel on which the film was based had an extra, unpublished chapter that explains the disappearances.  Plot-wise, I feel there is little merit in this and had it been included in the film, it probably would’ve been slightly less than disastrous.  It is not the kind of film that you unravel for the sake of reaching an end.  It is the kind of film you simmer in, the images embedding itself in your brain.  The image embedded in my brain is of the translucent girls, sitting on the grass in their white dresses.  They wander dream-like among the folds of the mamelon, pulled by invisible strings, pushed by invisible longings, unknowing of the fact that they will not come back.

-Lena Duong

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