Rapid Response: Picnic at Hanging Rock

 

I don’t know anything about the Australian New Wave. I assume that if your country did not eventually have a New Wave, perhaps your country’s cinema is not worth discussing (although even that’s not true).

But what I did notice upon seeing “Picnic at Hanging Rock” as part of the IU Cinema’s Australia in the ’70s series was that many of the directors emerging in this period are modern day staples and C-list directors at worst. Nicolas Roeg, Phillip Noyce, Bruce Beresford and this film’s director Peter Weir are amongst the talents emerging from this period.

Their films carried one theme above all: “beautiful cinematography and stories about the chasm between settlers from Europe and the mysteries of their ancient new home,” as Roger Ebert describes in his Great Movies piece on “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”

And maybe it’s my lack of familiarity or that I watched “The Tree of Life” recently, but “Picnic at Hanging Rock” struck me as a largely spiritual film. It’s lack of narrative clarity and a stunning sense of still life cinematography make the entire film seem other worldly.

At first the film seems to suggest that this is a true story of a missing person case from 1900 that may actually have an answer, if not a hint at one. No such luck, as the entire film and the 1967 novel its based on are entirely fictional. Rather “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is a perplexing, mystical film without a clear theme.

Beginning at a girls boarding school, we observe images, characters and dialogue too picturesque for their own good. The girls are all bathed in shimmering white, and the perfectly verdant campus looks overwrought for a period piece. Weir’s cinematography even places these girls in almost theatrical poses. Their figurative staging is elegant and graceful, and later a teacher describes one girl as a Botticelli angel.

Their god like stature doesn’t stop there. While picnicking, the girls all dressed in their white gowns are seen towering over a heart shaped cake on Valentine’s day, slicing the middle of it like a perverse Cupid. As four of the girls prance across a stream and in one of the film’s last shots are seen resting and playing with each others hair, they recall the Greek myth of Acteon spying on a bathing Artemis.

Four of the girls wander off and begin to climb the hanging rock, and Weir seamlessly manipulates our perspective and mood by draining the film of its idyllic color to make pallid, narrow corridors. First they look down at the world they left and scoff at how insignificant it looks from this new god like position. Then they sprawl on a rock and climb into a crevasse without shoes or socks, and before we know it, they’re gone. Their journey up this hill without a trip back down is a trip to another world, a dream within the dream (as the film echoes at the opening) that is their all too perfect domestic life in a world filled with other natural beauty. The girls are never found because of how impossible it must be to return to a fake world when you’ve achieved solace in heaven.

The remainder of the film is hit or miss in its emotional poignancy, with the most powerful moment coming as all the girls berate one survivor with amnesia as to the location of their other friends. Rarely does it match the spectral illusions conveyed through a chillingly synth driven score and a howling pan flute.

Weir has made a number of popular films in America since the ’70s, none of which I’m particularly fond of, be it “The Truman Show,” “Dead Poets Society” or “Master and Commander,” which I liked at the time but will have to revisit. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” struck me as something more, something with avant-garde mystery and cinematic precision. It’s a magically indecipherable film that makes me beg for another New Wave.

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