Picnic at Hanging Rock

‘What we see and what we seem are but a dream – a dream within a dream.’ So begins Picnic at Hanging Rock, with this quotation from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe – a quotation that aptly summarises its hypnotic, dream-like atmosphere, and its refusal of rational explanations. Directed in 1975 by Peter Weir, and based on a historical novel by Joan Lindsay, first published in 1967, it is widely regarded as one of the defining films of the state-funded revival of the Australian film industry.

The film begins on Valentine’s Day, Saturday February 14th 1900. Most of the students and staff of Appleyard College, a private girls’ boarding school in Victoria, Australia, go on a day-long picnic to nearby Hanging Rock, a volcanic outcrop near Mount Macedon. They leave behind Mrs. Appleyard, the school’s owner and headmistress, and Sara, a student who is being punished. Four of the girls, Miranda, Irma, Marion and Edith, go exploring up the Rock: they mysteriously fall asleep, and, having removed their boots and stockings, three of them eventually disappear, seemingly hypnotised, through a crevasse in the Rock. The fourth (and the misfit of the group), Edith, runs back down in a frightened panic. When the group returns to the school later that evening, it emerges that the maths teacher, Miss McCraw, is also missing. As the police begin questioning, and mount a search for the missing four, it appears that Edith cannot remember anything, beyond seeing Miss McCraw, dressed only in her underwear, climbing up the Rock as she herself was heading down.

Meanwhile, Michael Fitzhubert, a young English aristocrat, along with his somewhat older Australian valet Albert, had seen the four girls climbing up the Rock. Apparently smitten by Miranda, he feels compelled to go off and find them. When he does not return, Albert goes in search of him; and the seemingly dazed Michael gives him a small scrap of one of the girls’ lace dresses. Albert eventually locates Irma, but she too remembers nothing – like Edith, she has unexplained injuries, and it emerges that her corset is missing. Meanwhile, Sara and the French teacher, Mademoiselle de Portiers, who had both idolized Miranda, are also affected. Miss Appleyard becomes alarmed by the number of parents who are withdrawing their girls from the school, and the effect of these events on its reputation and financial viability. Having taken to drink, she again punishes Sara, an orphan whose fees have not been paid, and Sara apparently commits suicide. The mystery of what happened on the Rock is never resolved; and we are told in a final voice-over that Mrs. Appleyard’s body was found at the base of the Rock some days after Sara’s death.

Apparently, the final chapter of Joan Lindsay’s novel originally featured a bizarre explanation of the events, in which the girls disappear into a kind of ‘worm hole’ in space and time. Passing into a parallel dimension, they are greeted by a lizard-man, and are then transformed into various kinds of animals. This ending was wisely removed by Lindsay’s editor, although it was separately published in 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock. Some have argued that this ending is in line with some of the Aboriginal legends and beliefs that have grown up around the Rock: Lindsay later professed to be a ‘mystic’, and claimed that she herself had had a ‘time slippage’ experience while visiting the Rock at the age of four.

On one level, the film itself resolutely refuses any explanation. The survivors, Edith and Irma, do not seem to remember anything. Extensive search parties, using a range of then-current technologies, fail to locate the missing girls; and there are several unexplained details – why had Miss McCraw apparently removed her dress, why was Irma’s corset missing, how did Michael find the scrap of dress, and so on. There are some inconsistencies in Michael’s testimony to the police, and he initially fails to admit that he tried to follow the girls – suggesting that he may at least know more than he is letting on. Several additional mysteries are thrown up by the ending: it isn’t clear whether Sara jumped to her death or was pushed by Mrs. Appleyard, or whether Mrs. Appleyard herself committed suicide at the Rock, or merely fell. This aura of mystery is reinforced by the girls’ occasionally portentous statements – they seem to have a premonition of what is going to happen – and by the way these recur in later sequences. It is also accentuated by the use of other-worldly music (particularly Gheorghe Zanfir’s pan pipe and organ themes) and electronic sound effects, and by the hazy photography. In the very final shot, we see a reprise of an image of Miranda’s head, turning away from the camera as she starts to climb the Rock, as if refusing explanation.

On the other hand, the captions right at the start of the film, and the official-sounding voice-over at the end, convey the impression that it is based on real events – not least by providing precise dates and locations. In informing us in the opening caption that ‘several members of the party disappeared without trace’, the film deliberately removes a good deal of potential for suspense. The foreword to the novel maintains that the characters are now ‘long since dead’, and includes a fabricated news story from the time. The original foreword apparently contained a couple of sentences claiming that the story was ‘entirely true’ – although these too were deleted by the editor before publication. Lindsay herself remained evasive on the issue, suggesting that it was up to the reader to decide. There is still a considerable amount of speculation online about whether the events in the film really took place, even though they clearly did not – and this reflects the ways in which the film plays upon the distinctions between truth and illusion.

Most critical analyses of the film have tended to see it in terms of overlapping sets of binary oppositions. At the very start of the film, there are contrasting shots of two monolithic structures – Appleyard College, an imposing block of a building, and the Rock itself. The College is a highly disciplined, orderly environment, while the Rock is set in an untamed, natural wilderness. In the College, clocks are regularly heard ticking; but once they are on the Rock, the staff and students find that their watches have strangely stopped at twelve o’clock. As in other Peter Weir films, nature is represented as strange and potentially dangerous: there are references to snakes and shots of lizards; and once the girls have eaten their picnic, there is a shot of the Valentine’s cake crawling with ants. It’s not hard to detect a basic structural opposition here between nature and culture: civilization and rationality on the one hand, mystery and a kind of primaeval chaos on the other.

Sexuality is key to this, and it is predictably signified in the use of costume. The College is a world in which sexuality and the body are firmly repressed – as represented in the corsets that the girls are seen tightening in one of the opening shots. Once they start to approach the Rock, they are allowed to take off their white gloves; and as they climb, they remove their tight black boots and stockings, and their white dresses become soiled. The police fear that the girls may have been ‘molested’, although the doctors who examine the survivors assure them that they remain ‘intact’. Nevertheless, it is not clear why Irma’s corset is missing (or indeed why this fact is covered up from the police), or why Miss McCraw had apparently removed her dress. Towards the end of the film, Irma re-appears wearing a red dress and looking noticeably older: the other girls initially refuse to speak to her, but then turn on her and physically attack her, demanding explanations.

These sets of oppositions can be aligned with others, which invite a more political interpretation. The College is essentially a British, colonial institution (union jacks and images of Queen Victoria are prominently displayed): only the ‘below-stairs’ or junior staff are Australian. Michael Fitzhubert is also British and upper-class, and is set against his Australian valet, Albert; although the two eventually form a team. Sara, the student who is punished by Mrs. Appleyard, is Australian: it emerges that she is an orphan, and that Albert is her long-lost brother. In these and other respects, the film can be aligned with other colonial narratives, in which upper-class British settlers are shown attempting to impose order and control over an ancient, inchoate landscape, and over the ‘natives’ (albeit in this case, the white descendants of original migrants). Mrs. Appleyard’s decline into alcoholism, her neurotic punishment of Sara, and the bedraggling of her tightly-wound coiffure, seem to represent the ultimate collapse of this version of British civilization. At the end, she is left drunkenly recalling her ‘dependable’ holidays in Bournemouth – ‘nothing changed, ever’. (Setting the events in 1900, in the last year of Queen Victoria’s reign, would seem to reinforce this sense of the exhaustion of an old era.)

Meanwhile, the film has also been read in psychoanalytic terms. Critics routinely refer to the ‘phallic’ nature of the Rock, although one might just as well interpret its caves and crevasses in other ways. Even so, it is not hard to generate a basic Freudian interpretation of the narrative, as a struggle between Id and Superego: civilization is seen to be threatened (and ultimately vanquished) by the forces of darkness and the ‘uncanny’, by a fear of the native Other and of repressed desire. As the party approaches the Rock, Miss McCraw talks in foreboding ways about its volcanic formation – ‘viscous lava’ was forced up from ‘deep down below’ – and this rumbling of the unconscious is rather literally rendered in the electronic sounds that are associated with the Rock throughout.

In terms of the oppositions I have outlined, girlhood is aligned with culture: it is seen as a period of fragile beauty that has to be carefully cultivated. In the opening sequences, the camera lingers over the paraphernalia of femininity (which, as we’ll see, is also a notable characteristic of The Virgin Suicides): this is a claustrophobic world of flowers, ribbons, frilly clothing, and ornate knick-nacks. The girls brush their hair, beautify themselves and strap each other into corsets. They giggle over whispered secrets as they examine their Valentine’s cards (presumably from each other), but this is a chaste and idealized version of love. Images of the girls are frequently framed by mirrors and picture frames, presenting them as objects for contemplation. On their picnic, the girls dress in white lace; and as they travel on their carriage through the dusty local town, there is an evident contrast between them and the dirt of the Australian bush. Mademoiselle de Portiers compares Miranda, the idealized love object, to a ‘Botticelli angel’; and in Michael’s love-lorn reveries, she is frequently equated with shots of swans. As in several of the other films I’m considering, adolescent femininity is contrasted with adult womanhood: Mrs. Appleyard praises the maths teacher Miss McCraw for her ‘masculine intelligence’, and both are strict disciplinarians.

In a withering critique, Bruno Starrs argues that the film’s superficial ‘artistic’ gloss is merely a disguise for misogyny. He claims that the film objectifies the girls’ bodies, allowing a kind of voyeuristic male fantasy that is no better than that of popular Australian ‘sex romps’ of the same period. As I’ve implied, the film might be accused of fetishising a particular version of adolescent girlhood. Weir was apparently keen to achieve a pre-Raphaelite visual style – and as with those artists, his images of girls display a rather queasy, dream-like combination of spirituality and sexuality.   Meanwhile, there are also similarities between the gauzy, soft-focus photography (especially in the slow-motion images of Miranda) and the soft porn of the photographer David Hamilton, whom Weir has also mentioned as an influence – although Weir’s film is significantly more unsettling, hinting at unpleasant realities below the dreamy pastel surface.

Male desire is certainly a central theme: the three girls disappear well before the half-way point, and much of the second half of the film focuses on Michael’s search for them. However, Michael’s love for Miranda is provoked by catching a brief glimpse of her crossing a stream as she starts to climb the Rock: the apparent purity of his desire (and his British restraint) is contrasted with Albert’s much more lustful (Australian) response. Although he initiates the search, Michael spends much of the intervening time mooning about and gazing at swans: he is oddly languid and passive, and there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of viscous lava bubbling underneath.

However, the film is also about female desire, on the part of Mademoiselle de Portiers and especially of Sara. Sara’s love for Miranda is clear from the outset – and Miranda, with some foreboding, even advises her that she will need to find another love when she is gone. Sara is forbidden to accompany the others, and when Miranda does not return, she lies in bed surrounded by mementoes of Miranda, and even rummages through her clothes. Sara resists Mrs. Appleyard’s authority, refusing to learn a (notably English) poem she requires, and tries instead to read her own ode to St. Valentine. Mrs. Appleyard continues to single her out for punishment, almost as a vindictive expression of her own repressed and frustrated desires; Sara refuses to meet her gaze, and goes on to refuse food. In addition to being Australian and working-class (she has been abandoned by her mother and left in an orphanage, where she is abused), Sara is notably darker-haired than many of the other girls. In the scene in which Irma is attacked by the others, we discover that Sara has been literally strapped up by her teacher, apparently in an attempt to cure her of her ‘terrible stooping’; although the image of her strapped to the wall with leather belts would not be entirely out of place in the Marquis de Sade. In all these respects, Sara is a significant cause of ‘gender trouble’, of a kind that recurs in several of the other films I’ll be discussing.


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