Peter Weir, 1975
Starring: Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Helen Morse, Jacki Weaver
On St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of teenage girls from a private school in Victoria, Australia, go on a picnic to Hanging Rock, an ancient and ominous geological formation. Sara, one of the students, is prevented from going by the headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard. She must stay behind for an afternoon of punishment for some unspoken crime. Some of the girls, Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Edith, decide to go for a walk and climb up in the rocks. The chubby, whining Edith complains and must eventually lie down, while the other three girls climb higher and higher. Miss McCraw, one of their teachers, eventually goes to look for them, though no one notices her absence.
Hours later, the group returns to the school, but Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Miss McCraw are missing. Edith is quite ill, having returned to the camp site in hysterics and covered in scratches. Local policemen organize a hunt, which includes a young English boy, Michael, who saw Miranda and, thinking her beautiful, tried to follow the girls. No one is found, the Edith admits she saw Miss McCraw walking into the rocks without her skirt on. Determined to find Miranda, Michael wanders into the rocks and nearly dies. His friend Albert rescues him and also finds the unconscious body of Irma, who is alive, but very ill. Her corset is missing, but she has no memory of what happened.
Parents begin removing their daughters from the school and Irma is nearly attacked by the other students. Meanwhile, Sara’s punishments continue. After a young teacher, Miss Lumley, finds Sara tied to a wall, she gives her resignation notice. Mrs. Appleyard, meanwhile, has become more odd and disheveled. The next day, she tells Sara that she must return to the orphanage, because her school bill was never paid. Sara’s body is soon found. Though a suicide is assumed, Mrs. Appleyard is acting suspiciously. At the closing credits, it is revealed that the girls were never found and Mrs. Appleyard’s body was soon located at the base of Hanging Rock.
Based on the novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, this haunting, illusive Australian classic is not quite a mystery and not really a horror films, but its themes of repressed sexuality and the menacing, almost alien quality of the Outback are disturbing and deeply impacting. Where another famous Australian film from that period, Wake in Fright, is concerned with a descent into hell, Picnic at Hanging Rock is about a journey into the void, an exploration of absence, nothingness. It is a mystery film that is obsessed with the mystery, not its solution, and a horror film that displays its horrors by implying, though never directly showing them.
One of the most terrifying elements of Picnic at Hanging Rock is the unspoken relationship between Mrs. Appleyard and Sara. At first glance, this is merely a headmistress disciplining a rebellious student, but it takes a particularly nasty turn with implications of sexual obsession at best and at worst, abuse. Sarah is isolated from the other students, manipulated, told she is going back to the orphanage (where she has a very real history of abuse at the hands of other adults), and tied up. As her ill-treatment continues, Mrs. Appleyard becomes increasingly disheveled and disoriented. Sara’s death is intentionally vague, though it’s fairly obvious that Mrs. Appleyard has knowledge of it: she lies to another teacher about Sara’s whereabouts, saying she has already left with her guardian, and is wearing mourning clothes before she hears the news of Sara’s death.
Making a film (or writing a novel) about a mystery that can never be solved is a difficult venture and probably frustrated a fair number of viewers, but director Peter Weir did an excellent job with Picnic at Hanging Rock. This central issue of the missing girls reminded me of a number of other works – Antonioni’s L’Avventura being the most obvious candidate for comparison, but also J.M. Barry’s play Mary Rose (which Hitchcock was so desperate to adapt), and oddly Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Virgin Suicides. Though we know what happened to the girls in Virgin Suicides – they all commit suicide – we never find out why. Picnic at Hanging Rock is also similar to E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, which is equally concerned with sexual repression, a hostile natural landscape, and unexplained events. This hostility, particularly in terms of the Australian Outback, is also explored in Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout.
There’s some incredible, haunting cinematography from Weir’s regular collaborator Russell Boyd and a near-perfect score including pan-pipe compositions from Gheorghe Zamfir and dreamy, melancholic classical pieces from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and others. Acclaimed director Peter Weir is also known for The Cars That Ate Paris, The Last Wave, Galipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, and more commercial films like The Dead Poet’s Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This is a masterpiece among many fine films and it is an absolute must-see.
Criterion released a lovely, director’s cut DVD of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and I believe they plan to re-release it on Blu-ray in June of this year. Again, Picnic at Hanging Rock comes with the highest possible recommendation. This enigmatic film may be too slow or mysterious for some, but is one of the most magical exercises in filmmaking from the ‘70s.