“Everything begins and ends at the exact right time and place.” This phrase, one of many portentous lines lightly uttered in Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), teases us with intimations of the fraudulence of free will. Is every thing written, branded into the world’s flesh, waiting for us only to fulfil our miniscule role in destiny’s trajectory? This singular film—a study in class, gender and sexual repression; at heart the subtlest of horror films; a major player in both the Australian New Wave and director Peter Weir’s career—dangles questions about determinism and causality over our collective psyches. Those questions keep dangling four decades on, just as the titular “geological marvel” still hangs suspended in Australia’s Central Victoria countryside a million years after its formation. A mystery without resolution—and thus akin to L’avventura (1960)—Picnic is ambiguous to the core, yet it brims with specificities in its characters, objects and milieu. It’s now available on DVD and BluRay from Criterion.
The set-up is summarized in a single opening title card informing us that on Valentine’s Day, in the year 1900, three students and one instructor from Appleyard College, Educational Establishment for Young Ladies disappeared without a trace while spending the day at Hanging Rock. We see the Appleyard class embark on their trip; we see four girls climb up between the stones, hands linked like paper dolls, like the silhouetted figures at the end of The Seventh Seal (1957); we see only one girl return, screaming. We see the carriage return to the college far later than it was supposed to, without the three girls or the teacher who went to find them. And we see the lives of many of those left behind, students and adults both, slowly unravel in myriad strange ways.
Joan Lindsay’s 1967 source novel—which Criterion has included in a paperback edition in its Hanging Rock box—focuses on social mores and objective incident. The film, by comparison, leans into the mystic, something Van Morrison rendered as welcoming and buoyant just a few years earlier in a popular song, but which Weir and his collaborators render here as entrancing and deeply eerie, a sort of black hole or siren’s song. Editor Max Lemon lures us into a sinister groove with woozy dissolves that merge images of birds with girls, who dreamily sway their skirts in the sun. The air is thick with repression, especially of the sexual variety: among the missing is Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), an unmistakable object of desire for at least one classmate; two young men from different classes seem to flirt, even as they ogle the girls from afar; a notable omen is the sudden stopping of everyone’s watches, those emblems of efficiency; a memorable early image finds several girls in a daisy chain of corset fastening; another features the strayed girls laying asleep on the rocks, their limbs extended in vaguely erotic patterns. Of course, everything is mere suggestion. The film is haunting, absorbing, alluring—never vulgar.
Among Criterion’s supplements is a documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew. Lambert tells of her first encounter with Lindsay during production, claiming that the elderly author came to her, embraced her, and said, “It’s been so long, Miranda.” It’s a great little story, very much in keeping with the film. It also helps keep alive the old rumour that the novel was based on real events, that Lindsay perhaps had her own beguiling Miranda as an adolescent. But Lindsay’s long since died, taking her secrets with her, leaving the absolute mystery surrounding Hanging Rock in tact. V