On Saturday 14th February 1900 a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mt. Macedon in the state of Victoria.
During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without trace . . .
With that written introduction, we begin Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, a hypnotic film that is centered on that strange (fictional, though this stuff does happen . . . all the time) disappearance on an otherwise pleasant — even soporific — school outing in 1900.
What is it about the “lost girl” plot — old and universal and perennial? Obviously, we are often drawn to unsolved mysteries, but it seems this type in particular has an extra charge, perhaps because it mixes our fear of violent crime, our guilt for the uncomfortably recognizable sordidness that would go along with this type of crime, and our jealousy for the girl’s absolute physical escape. Those who remain behind suddenly find themselves in a fallen community: there may be a murderer in the midst; there is shame and guilt that the girl ever disappeared; and there’s that envy. Those abandoned realize they are still terrestrial beings, locked in place, and some yearn for their own escape. Does any lost girl story — or any work of art, period — express this particular unification of fear, guilt, shame, and envy better than Picnic at Hanging Rock?
Last week The Criterion Collection released a beautiful, remastered, dual-format (DVD and Blu-ray) edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
I am obsessed with the film. Its opening statement suggests that the story is true, tricking us into forgiving its excess (a trick the Coen Brothers used in Fargo) and preparing us for the dissatisfaction of a mystery without a solution. “Dissatisfaction” may be misapplied here. We yearn for some kind of release from the mystery, but if this wish were granted the result would be a reduction in the film’s power and in our own inward ponderings. After all, any solution would be more mundane or silly than what our minds — sifting through subconscious associations — can dream up. (Incidentally, we can easily confirm that a solution would make the work poorer by digging deeply to read the original ending of Joan Lindsay’s source novel and glimpse Weir’s own alternate ending to the film.) Unresolved, the film is perfectly unsatisfactory . . . or, in other words, extremely satisfying. I’ve been up at night thinking about this film’s mystery and Weir’s incredible work. I love it when that happens. It reminds me of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw because its ambiguity has a range of interpretations that allow our minds to roam from the mundane to the truly abhorrent.
And that’s what makes Picnic at Hanging Rock great. The film isn’t really about any kind of solution. Rather, it’s about our desire for a solution, our discomfort when we come face to face with the fact we are not in control, that we might not know those around us, that the world is not as it seems. It’s about our fears, our guilt, our deviant imagination, our yearning, our envy. The formerly secured parameters of society have, due to the mystery, become porous. It’s the mystery that allows us to sense that we are in a dream within a dream, which is actually a nightmare, and maybe there’s hope we can wake up.
The film opens on St. Valentine’s Day morning in 1900. We are at Appleyard College, an all-female private school in the state of Victoria, Australia. The girls, still in their underwear, are reading Valentine’s cards and poems, including a slight misquotation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within a Dream”: “What we see and what we seem are but a dream — a dream within a dream.” The girls prepare for the day, washing their faces in water filled with flower petals, brushing their hair with ornately designed brushes, and helping one another into their tight corsets, an image that, as pointed out in the film’s introduction by film scholar David Thomson, at once represents sexuality and its oppression:
It also serves as a nice indication of what type of school Appleyard College is. These girls are being raised to refinement, as the term is understood according to the strict mores of the time. They are expected to lock up their sexuality, while still making themselves appropriately attractive to the gentlemen.
While we are meeting the girls, one stands out to us, just as she stands out to the other characters in the film: Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert). Almost a side character (she’s one who disappears in the first half hour of the film), she and her allure are central to the film’s tone and enigma. Even when physically present, she is mysterious, as if she knows something the others do not. Many characters are attracted to her, including her fellow schoolmate, Sara (Margaret Nelson), an orphan who seems to have a crush on Miranda. Miranda is the embodiment of “what we see and what we seem are but a dream.”
The school is run by a staunch British woman named Mrs. Appleyard (played by Rachel Roberts, and who, for my money, is more chilling in her moral high-mindedness and authority than Nurse Ratched is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Even when attempting to be beneficent — Mrs. Appleyard has decided to allow the girls to go on a picnic at Hanging Rock (a real location in Victoria) — the cruelty underlying her seemingly arbitrary use of power can’t be masked. As the girls descend the stairs, Sara is told she will not be allowed to go on the trip, and we never know why — she just isn’t. Again, in trying to untangle the mystery, our mind can run the range in such ambiguity: perhaps it’s because her tuition is not paid in full, perhaps it’s because she is an orphan, perhaps it’s because she is not doing well in her studies, perhaps it’s because Mrs. Appleyard has recognized Sara’s infatuation with Miranda, perhaps Sara is the pet lightning rod . . . we could go on.
The rest of the girls are to be chaperoned by Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) and Mlle. de Poitiers (Helen Morse). Mrs. Appleyard’s telling, cruel generosity continues: she tells the girls they may remove their white gloves, but only after they are past the town. And so they arrive at Hanging Rock.
It’s an idyllic scene away from the school. The girls have now removed their white gloves, another temporary escape, albeit a minor one, and they lie in the sun. The cinematographer, Russell Boyd, captures the beauty and langour of that midday light. It’s also hot, and here we find the girls and adults bundled up in the Australian heat as if they were guarding against an English rainstorm that will never come. They’re reveling in the natural world, while trying to maintain a distance mandated by decorum.
After a time, three of the girls ask if they can explore the rock. They won’t be gone long, Miranda says. A fourth girl, the awkward and obnoxious Edith (Christine Schuler), tags along.
Watching the girls are a couple of young men who are also lunching at Hanging Rock, Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), an Englishman visiting his uncle and aunt, and Albert (John Jarratt), their valet. Albert wryly comments on the girls’ figures. Michael says he doesn’t like such crass talk, but Albert hits the nail on the head: he says it, while Michael only thinks it. The one that draws the most attention, is Miranda; Michael seems hypnotized by her. The girls continue on their way up the rock.
Hanging Rock itself is a presence that seems conscious. The rocks breathe and watch over the party. An obvious symbol of primal forces (on the way to the rock Miss McCraw says the rock “erupted from deep within”), Hanging Rock is a force of nature that the young genteel girls feel connected to even if they’ve been taught to ward off such associations. Its mystery pulls the four straying girls further up its slopes where Edith watches with shock as the other three girls remove their shoes and then their stockings. Finally, to Edith’s absolute terror, Miranda leads the others through a narrow passage; two will never be seen again.
Edith runs back to the picnic screaming. She cannot explain what happened. After a fruitless search, and the further discovery that Miss McCraw has also disappeared, the party reluctantly returns to Appleyard.
This is a little more than a quarter of the way into the film. It’s the set up. We now watch everything back at the college unravel as the girls, the administration, and the community try to understand what has happened.
People have their suspicions. Michael himself is the subject of a minor inquiry since he followed the four girls for a bit after they passed him and Albert. Other mysteries arise and deepen.
For one, there’s Sara. As she deals with Miranda’s disappearance, she must also deal with the atmosphere of a school that takes pleasure in torturing her. She speaks once to a sympathetic ear about her time in an orphanage and mentions her older brother. Albert himself, at another part of the film, talks of being in an orphanage and of his younger sister, Sara. Why is this part of the storyline? I cannot say. It’s another mystery with no answer but with a palpable presence.
Later on, Irma (Karen Robson), one of the girls who disappeared on the rock, is actually found. Her body shows no sign of molestation, and her injuries are limited to her hands, as if she were clawing her way through something. Other than that, her body is fine. She has no memory of what happened on the rock. In one of the more terrifying scenes, after her convalescence, she visits the girls who remained at Appleyard as they exercise in a room that looks more like a torture chamber, with a sign that says “Health is beauty” hanging up behind them.
There she is, in the middle, wearing red. We know what red signifies, but we don’t understand how it applies in this instance. She is, by the doctor’s own word, still virginal, and whatever knowledge she gained on the rock has been lost. Still, she is no longer a part of this small group.
Meanwhile, Sara has been tied up in the back, ostensibly to correct her posture.
Why wouldn’t these girls want to escape so badly that, when given the chance, they simply disappear? Why wouldn’t the prospects of such an escape terrify a girl like Edith, who probably finds some comfort in the school. Did Irma injure her hands clawing her way back because what she found on the other side of whatever was so terrifying, or was that way simply shut off to her, though she desperately wanted to follow the knowing, transcendent Miranda. And why does Miss McCraw become condemned or blessed with her own disappearance. These are only a few of the mysteries — it’s beautiful and horrific, particularly when paired with the other forms of escape we see in the film.
I want to turn my attention here to the new Criterion Collection edition. One thing of note is that it is the director’s cut, put together in the late 1990s, which is, perhaps surprisingly, shorter than the original theatrical cut. This version excludes lines that some people find important; for example, the entire relationship between Michael and Irma, the girl who returned from the rock, has been removed here. For me, this is not a big concern. Neither is the other minor missing scene concerning Mrs. Appleyard and Sara. I don’t think it’s necessary; the mystery of Sara’s fate is still intact.
The new Criterion Collection edition also comes with a number of excellent supplements:
There is a ten-minute introduction to the film by David Thomson, a film scholar and author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Thomson talks mostly about the impact the film had on Australian cinema as a whole, opening the door to the world.
There are also a few compilations of interviews with cast and crew.
First, there is Recollection . . . Hanging Rock 1900, a 26-minute, on-set documentary from 1975. It is hosted by producer Patricia Lovell as she goes around asking cast and crew about the story and, primarily, the rock itself and its mysterious history, obviously (but effectively) building it up for the film’s release. She asks Dominic Guard (who is playing Michael) if he’d actually stay over night on Hanging Rock, as his character does; he says he might since he’s English and doesn’t know about the rock, aptly covering one of the film’s themes. Lovell even asks locals about their theories of the missing girls, with one suggesting the rocks sound hollow so maybe they fell in one. Lovell also talks to Weir, Rachel Roberts (who isn’t in any of the newer features since she died in 1980 at only 53), and Joan Lindsay, the author of the source novel (Lindsay is also not around for the later supplements since she also died a few decades ago in 1984, at 88). Great stuff.
Next, there is a 30-minute documentary, Everything Begins and Ends, which, though newly produced, features interviews from 2003 with Lovell and her co-producers Hal and Jim McElroy, cinematographer Russell Boyd, and actors Helen Morse and Anne-Louise Lambert. This documentary covers a lot of ground, with people talking about their own experiences at the rock and their own recollections of the production and the film’s impact on world cinema. I was very interested to learn that Anne-Louise Lambert, whose image is iconic, was not intended to be Miranda. It’s just something that fell together when Weir realized she was Miranda.
That’s not the only thing that fortuitously fell together, we learn. Capping off the interviews is a great 25-minute 2003 interview with Peter Weir, in which he discusses, with more depth, aspects of the production, aspects that increase the film’s mystery and power. He was willing to take risks and try things out just because he felt like it. That kind of gamble doesn’t always pay off, but it did here. Rachel Roberts was not cast to play Mrs. Appleyard until just before production began (the prior actress fell through). Weir talks about Roberts’ genuine discomfort playing Appleyard, fearing what she thought was the girls’ actual hatred of her. He also confirms what we may be thinking: this film was uncomfortable to create. Weir said he tried to liven it up a bit between takes, but the actors just wouldn’t or couldn’t.
Another impressive feature is Weir’s 1971 film Homesdale (which he credits as being the film that brought the producers to his door to film Picnic). It’s a bizarre, 41-minute, black-and-white film. I don’t think it’s particularly good, but it is an interesting look at Weir’s beginnings and into some of the techniques he’d use (and improve) for Picnic.
Inside the case is a booklet with an essay by Megan Abbott, an author of crime fiction who has admitted to being inspired by a different kind of “lost girls” story: Jeffrey Eugenides’ brilliant The Virgin Suicides (Mookse review here), a book I think of when I think of Picnic at Hanging Rock, with its midday sun and mysterious loss. Abbott’s is a nice essay that jumps into quite a bit of psychoanalysis. Also in the booklet is an excerpt from film-scholar Marek Haltof’s 1996 books Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide. Haltof’s excerpt traces the history of Australian cinema, and I was shocked to see the numbers: only 17 Australian feature films were made in the 1960s, much less than the 163 in the 1910s and the 90 in the 1920s . . . the numbers keep going down to that 1960s nadir. Then, the government became involved with funding. In the 1970s, 153 features were made, and Picnic at Hanging Rock pushed Australian cinema to the world.
Lastly (other than the film’s trailer) is the novel itself, in a special edition from Penguin. I haven’t read this yet, but I’m anxious to, and I hope to see how it compares with the film and cover it all here
If you cannot tell, I highly recommend the film, especially as presented in this edition.