It’s taken until the third post for me to break my vow to choose the order of these films at random, but I felt obliged to write about this one now for the sake of neatness, as it ties in so neatly with the first two. Like Walkabout it is concerned with the descendants of European colonists meeting untamed Australia, and like The Go-Between it is set during the summer of 1900 (though of course this is the end of the Australian summer, in February). And Dominic Guard reappears, transformed from the prepubescent Leo into the young gentleman Michael, though his advanced years have not made him any more comfortable socially.
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 a trace …
So reads the opening title card of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Appleyard College is a fee-paying girls’ school where formality is the order of the day. The widow Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), a formidable martinet, hair dressed with military precision, oversees everything. All the girls save one, the orphan Sara, travel with two teachers to Hanging Rock. A group of four – Miranda, Irma, Marion and Edith – leaves the party to explore the higher reaches of the rock. Apparently in a trance, Miranda, Irma and Marion leave Edith behind to venture further upwards, oblivious to her cries. Edith alerts the rest of the party, and the stern Maths teacher Miss McCraw goes to investigate. Neither she nor the other girls return.
The first words we hear in the film are poetry, a misquotation of Poe spoken as a voiceover: ‘What we see / and what we seem / are but a dream / a dream within a dream.’ Poetry and poetic aphorisms recur throughout the film, which opens with scenes of the girls reciting verse to each other as they share Valentine’s Day cards. Poetry is their currency. It is also a weapon. ‘You little ignoramus!’ cries Mrs Appleyard indignantly at Sara’s protestation that she cannot memorise a poem. ‘Evidently you don’t know that Mrs. Felicia Hemans is considered one of the finest of our English poets.’
The film itself is a dream-poem, operating at a level of not-quite-reality. This grows from Weir’s awe at Hanging Rock itself, and invites comparisons with Walkabout. There are certainly parallels: take for instance the soundtrack, which juxtaposes original music by Bruce Smeaton, the primal flûte de Pan of Gheorghe Zamfir, and the most refined of Western classical music. As the girls are driven towards Mount Macedon, we hear the first prelude from Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Clavier. The music seems to personify the youth and gentility of the girls, but it also highlights the gulf between the order of the school and the disorder of the wilderness. Weir also takes several opportunities, as Roeg does, to show the wildlife of the rock intruding on the lives of the girls – ants swarming over a piece of cake; a lizard crawling past the reclining Miranda. There is a strain of sexuality running through both films. In Walkabout it is unchecked because the children have abandoned the restrictions of their society, but in Picnic it is always bubbling under the surface. Michael admonishes his ocker servant Albert (the superb John Jarratt) for making crude sexual insinuations. ‘I say the crude things,’ replies Albert, ‘you just think ’em.’
It seems to me that Weir has a greater instinct for telling stories than Roeg. It is not by chance that in the BAFTA David Lean Lecture he gave last December Weir dwelled heavily on the subject of storytelling and oral tradition, even suggesting that if he weren’t a filmmaker he would be a storyteller in the manner of the French trouvères. It is natural then that Picnic at Hanging Rock should be a more plot-driven film than Walkabout, and yet its plot is anything but conventional.
Critics compared it to Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking L’Avventura on its release. L’Avventura centres around three principal characters: Sandro, his girlfriend Anna, and her friend Claudia. 25 minutes into the film, Anna disappears. Sandro and Claudia spend the rest of the film exploring various avenues by which they hope to find her. Anna never turns up, and her disappearance remains unexplained. By the end, what one might have expected to be a mystery has turned into a psychological study of the people left behind. Antonioni subverts the viewer’s expectations of the narrative, and produces something far more interesting than a mere mystery.
Picnic follows the model of L’Avventura closely. Once the girls have disappeared, the focus changes subtly. The viewer is given tantalising hints that the mystery will be explained – Edith’s sighting of Miss McCraw; Michael’s discovery of a telltale piece of lace; perhaps most devastatingly of all the reappearance of Irma, dehydrated but alive – but by the end, although the stories of many of the protagonists have been resolved, the mystery has not. One can understand some viewers feeling swindled, but to lament the lack of resolution is to miss the point. The viewer should disregard the possibility of the girls’ return and look instead at the tangible aspect of their disappearance: the ripples that radiate outwards, affecting those left behind. Michael becomes obsessed with discovering Miranda and goes nearly mad on the rock; one by one, parents withdraw their daughters from Appleyard College; Mrs Appleyard has a breakdown. By the end there is barely a character in the film whose life has not assumed some tragic aspect.
There is a common apprehension that the film is based on a true story, which the presentation of the film, with its title card and final voiceover, does nothing to dispel. In fact it is based on a novel by Joan Lindsay. Lindsay was a fine writer and a delightful woman (for a demonstration, watch this interview from 1974 where she talks about the novel), but the periodic statements she made about the story’s origins can appear to contradict each other, making the mystery even more enigmatic than it already is. I believe it is a fiction, but that its power is not lessened by its not being true. When she first wrote the novel, Lindsay contemplated appending a chapter giving a supernatural explanation to the disappearance, but decided against it. It was a wise decision.