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...
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