On Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)

by Jacqueline Valencia 

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. I was so deeply impressed when I saw The Wicker Man  (which needs its own Freudian/Jungian analysis somewhere, especially for this scene: https://vimeo.com/87336570) that I had to watch all the folk horror that I could find. This isn’t an easy task since a lot is labelled folk horror nowadays.

This review is a way to get some of you who are interested in the occult to visit or revisit the world of folk horror films. You can find a neat list here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/where-begin-folk-horror

I’m tempted to get into concepts and immanence presented in this film right now, since that’s all I’m thinking about these days with film = concepts, but I’ll go with the “I’ll throw at you some fragmented review/thoughts” as has been my way as of late to avoid writers’ block (I will later with The Wicker Man though):

“What we see and what we seem are but a dream”

The opening scenes in Picnic In Hanging Rock are rendered through a soft and fairy-like filter with the schoolgirls of Appleyard College reading love poetry to each other. They are getting ready for their trip to a mysterious formation called Hanging Rock. Just before they go the orphan of the group, Sarah (Margaret Nelson), is told she must stay behind. Sara is obsessed/in love with her roommate, the ethereal Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) and laments not being able to be with her.

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The girls head up on their picnic and four of them, Miranda, Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis), and Edith (Christine Schuler), decide to head up the rock to take measurements. Their teacher Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) follows soon after one of the other teacher’s, Mlle. de Poitiers (Helen Morse) proclaims, “Miranda is a Botticelli angel!” The girls head up and as they get to the top they fall into a sleepy haze before three of them disappear leaving a whiny and screaming Edith behind.

The story then settles into the reactions of the school (particularly those of the headmistress Ms. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), a sort of Cruella DeVille character, the town (especially Michael, a young man who briefly saw the girls and also became obsessed with Miranda).

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Everything in this film is laid out with insinuations, suspense, and assumptions. The girls’ disappearance is never explained, nor does anyone make an attempt to come to concrete solution to the mystery. But while nothing is overtly mentioned, a lot is implied. Rumours of rape, kidnapping, or forces of the unknown are hinted at, but memories of the one girl, Miranda, haunt the rest of the film.

Well, it was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery. If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that it matters. I wrote that book as a sort of atmosphere of a place, and it was like dropping a stone into the water. I felt that story, if you call it a story—that the thing that happened on St. Valentine’s Day went on spreading, out and out and out, in circles. 

 

My impression of Weir’s brilliance in this film was the was insinuation of female supernaturalness against any state of male-dominated “normalcy.” That is to say, the film and story itself succeed because the girls’ connection to nature is beyond reason and beyond putting in a box that it lends itself well to a great suspenseful horror.

Take for example, Miranda. She’s beautiful, not really connected to anyone in the film, but it is implied her impressions on others are meaningful.

http://aso.gov.au/titles/features/picnic-hanging-rock/clip1/

  • “I know that Miranda is a Boticelli angel.” (in the clip said by Mlle. de Poitiers who acts as a sort of “eye for the audience” in the film). 

In the film, the girls are all at that stage: either the sexual awakening teen stage or their period stage. It’s where their fantasy life is on the brink of becoming reality, all due to fairy tale books and romance novels. The giant Hanging Rock might seem to some as Freudian and phallic, but I’d like to think of it as symbol of their own power. The Hanging Rock is a symbol of the richness the young women have in being so connected to the their natural surroundings. Whether that be the moon cycles to their periods or the very idea that the possibility that life could spawn from their bodies, Miranda transcended all of these ideas as she led her friends up the rock. She tells Sara before leaving that she must detach from her and from then on she is just a vessel of magical femininity to the camera.

In a deleted chapter of the book:

each girl begins to experience dizziness and feel as if she is “being pulled from the inside out”; they then throw their corsets from the top of the cliff but, instead of falling, the corsets stand still in mid-air. The girls then encounter what is described as “a hole in space”, by which they physically enter a crack in the rock. The suspension of the corsets and description of the hole in space suggest that the girls have encountered some sort of time warp, which is compatible with Lindsay’s fascination with and emphasis on clocks and time in the novel.

The corset is an interesting form of body modification in that it is a way for a woman to adhere to her (or the times) bodily aesthetic. The film is set just before the end of Victorian times in Australia. This adds many layers to the movie since Victorian Autstralia is extremely colonial and full of stories of exiles from society. We’re thinking if you’re not a convict banished to Down Under, you’re a noble person trying to make a new life for yourself. Being a female student in a room full of schoolgirls in 1900 small Australia, of course you’ll be ethereal and new to the eyes. But Miranda and her three friends were different. It’s as if they were chosen or awakened by whatever spirit existed on that rock.

Two things that get me most about this film:

  1. No one ever thinks that the girls might have run away.
  2.  And the idea that women are so intrinsically connected to the land.

Folk horror films have an intriguing thread, whereby traditional Christian values are either questioned or accentuated by the original stories of those that they have colonized. In The Wicker Man, the policeman would have avoided his fate if he had let the pagan townspeople be and in Penda’s Fen, a young man could have avoided his psychosis if he’d just listened to the origins of the land he’d pledged allegiance to. In Picnic In Hanging Rock, there is no known disadvantage for the girls beyond them going missing. They either solve the mystery of the aboriginal land they inhabit or are absorbed by it and become a part of the land’s story. Their disappearance reveals more about the colonial/traditional environment the girls were in and the townsfolk that inhabit it than it does of the girls themselves.

*****************

I read the book and I had even more questions. Researching it led to more inquiries and it all felt a little familiar. This was all very much like reading Flowers In The Attic by VC Andrews. Andrews was adamant that her stories were only partly autobiographical, but then you read things like this:

“Flowers in the Attic WAS based on a true story. Virginia was a young lady when my dad made arrangements to take Virginia to the University of Virginia hospital for treatment. While she was there, she developed a crush on her young doctor. He and his siblings had been locked away in the attic for over 6 years to preserve the family wealth. Obviously she cut the time back [in her novel] to be more believable. That area of the country has a lot of very wealthy people. I do not know who they were.” – one of Virginia’s relatives

Picnic At Hanging Rock is based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay.

Appleyard College was to some extent based on Clyde Girls’ Grammar School at East St Kilda, Melbourne, which Joan Lindsay attended as a day-girl while in her teens. Incidentally, in 1919 this school was transferred to the town of Woodend, Victoria, about 8 km southwest of Hanging Rock.[5] The book suggests that the fictional site of Appleyard College, given its eastward view of Mount Macedon on the Bendigo-Melbourne Road, might have been on the western side of Calder Highway/Black Forest Drive (C792), about 2–4 km south of Woodend.

Lindsay never said whether the story was made up, nor did she ever deny that it was true. This takes me further back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which was also rumoured to be true.

both Shelleys were already intrigued by the use of electricity to animate limbs — newly popular in the scientific community — when, on their way through the dark forests of the Rhine Valley, they likely heard tales of the alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel, a controversial figure rumored to have robbed graves and experimented on corpses at Frankenstein Castle.

Looking at these three works and the women behind them, I see a similar connection: women who’ve created supernatural masterpieces out of their own heads being questioned for their creativity.

While this isn’t new, my curiosity lies in the supernatural element: the conjuring up of a story by a female writer. It’s like a woman needs to either weave a spell from the real elements of her life to create a compelling story for her to exist ideally as a female writer. I have more to say on this (maybe one day), but let’s get back to Picnic at Hanging Rock.

***********

That haunting Zamfir, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Bach soundtrack. Help me out here:

If you’re a person born in the 7os going through a 70s aesthetic revival there is something very haunting about Zamfir‘s pan flute. I’m sure nostalgia wasn’t the intention, but in the 70s and early 8os, Zamfir was quite thing to be heard in infomercials and commercials offering the latest in folk artists at that time. Nowadays, with vinyl collectors in full revival, a Zamfir infused soundtrack is reminiscent of a time of subtle introspection.

Russel Boyd‘s cinematography (Gallipoli, Master And Commander) is a site to behold though. If you’re a fan of cinema for its art direction this film has magical filters galore (if I were to pick an instagram filter, I’d say it’s between a Rise and Sierra). Very retro and also very now.

Thus, my diagnosis for this film is for you to go see it with its strange mix of “Victorian-pre-Raphaelite-gothic mystery in a 70s abrupt/ambiguous setting.” You’ll leave it still thinking, still analyzing, and still wondering if you could get the soundtrack on vinyl.

 

******

jackie1

Picnic At Hanging Rock analysis up at TCM: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/345404%7C0/Picnic-at-Hanging-Rock.html

 

 

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One thought on “On Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)

  1. Can’t say whether I liked this film or not, but definitely found it thought-provoking. I can’t tell if I appreciated its reliance on mood rather than plot, but it was certainly evocative – although I probably could’ve done without the gauzy filter). Nice to see some of Weir’s early work since I liked his later stuff so much.
    (This was one of the first ones I reviewed on my blog if you’re interested – https://mondaymorningmoviequarterback.wordpress.com/2015/07/14/picnic-at-hanging-rock/).

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