Picnic at Hanging Rock
In his book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970, English edition 1975), literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov gives us useful critical tools with which to approach films of supernatural mystery, also known as the fantastic. According to him, the fantastic requires the audience to interpret the unusual events they see. A hesitation is set up between two kinds of explanations: the rational and the supernatural. This hesitation is what defines the fantasy genre proper. The film, and its audience, are put in a position of deciding whether something is, or isn’t. If they decide on a rational explanation (such as a dream or coincidence), then the film is part of the uncanny genre. If they accept a supernatural influence, then the film enters the realm of the marvellous.
The greatest works of fantasy – among the richest of films – tend to be open-ended, suspending themselves between these possible explanations. Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, for example, ends as it began, in mystery. It is up to the audience to investigate the film and take up the clues by which they are most intrigued. It provides a model of the fantasy film genre.
“It’s been waiting a million years, just for us,” remarks one of the girls as they ride toward Hanging Rock. The film suggests that the disappearance is predestined. Also, it is St Valentine’s Day, and the year is 1900 – the beginning of a century. All this lends an aura of great historical import to what happens. The rock stands, as it were, apart from the rest of the world that surrounds it. One of the girls aptly comments that, from where they are, the people below look like ants, “possibly serving some function unknown to themselves”.
On the rock, all watches stop at noon. Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) puts it down to magnetism. The supernatural interpretation is the literal one: time has stopped, and life on the rock exists in a different dimension. Time no longer follows a logical course of cause and effect. Rather, as Miranda (Anne Lambert) says, “Everything begins and ends at the right time” – perhaps at the same time, the frozen moment of noon.
The atmosphere of the rock is linked to a release of sexual constraints. The idea is conveyed by a visual comparison. At Appleyard College pigeons sit on the grass, silent and still. When the school party arrives at the rock, birds fly out in a great roar, an explosion of activity. Similarly, the girls discover a new freedom, while seeming not to realise it themselves. The film superimposes, in slow motion, images of the girls taking off their stockings upon the dance-like sway of their bodies, an intimation of sexual experience.
These evocations of sexuality open up two interpretations: rational and supernatural. The rational explanation is that the girls are abducted by someone lying in wait on the rock. Later, one of the townspeople comments: “It must be someone from another town. No one around here would do such a thing!” Yet when Irma (Jane Vallsi) is found alive by Michael (Dominic Guard) she is “intact”; her head is bruised and hands scratched, but the rest of the body is unmarked.
Of all the girls who go on the expedition up the rock, it is Miranda who is presented as having a special awareness of the significance of what they are doing. It is even suggested that she has been gifted with a premonition of the disappearance. Early in the film, she tells Sara (Margaret Nelson): “You must learn to love someone apart from me. I will not be with you for much longer.” This might simply mean she is going to another school, but the hint of the supernatural is strong. As well, the film’s last shot returns to a gesture that is charged with great significance: her farewell wave to Mlle de Poitiers (Helen Morse), as if she is bidding goodbye to the world. The frame freezes as Miranda turns her head, to stress that finality.
Twice in the film Michael thinks of Miranda, and Weir dissolves to a shot of a swan, so that the two figures appear for a moment in the image together. This carries the hint of a mythic explanation, for in Greek mythology Leda bore children to Zeus, who had intercourse with her while she was in the form of a swan. Miranda, too, has perhaps been borne away by a god in a recurrence of the legend. This is reinforced by Mlle de Poitiers describing her as resembling a Botticelli angel.
But what of the others? Miss McCraw? Irma, left on the rock? And why does Michael appear to go through much the same experience as the girls? The audience is allowed to become as skeptical of the supernatural interpretation as of the rational one. Neither reading will guarantee a full, secure knowledge.
For the characters in the film, as well as for the audience, a crisis arises. How does one even begin to understand a mystery when it is not only the extraordinary events on the rock that prove elusive? For nature itself, in its most common manifestations, also contains elements of the marvellous. As Michael makes his way up the rock, Weir cuts to the animals around him – watching, knowing, as we might imagine. In the greenhouse at Appleyard College, when one man insists “There’s gotta be a solution”, his friend demonstrates the life in one of his plants: “Did you know they could move?” This theme is echoed in the tiniest details. The girls hold a seashell to their ears – and how does a small shell contain the sound of the entire sea?
The horror of never knowing or understanding is all pervasive. Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) remarks, after Irma is found, “It’s worse that only one has been found.” Having no memory of what occurred, Irma, in time, is hated by all. Michael, and then her school friends, batter her with the question, “What happened?” – but they know it will never be answered.
Ironically, at one point, the girls sing the hymn “Rock of Ages” but, rather than praising the God whose wonders are known and loved and whose church is everlasting, the song brings one of the girls to tears, reminding her of that other rock of ages which escapes the certainties of Christian religion. It is this horror that finally, as the closing narration tells us, sends Mrs Appleyard to her death; she falls while trying to climb the rock.
The film suggests meaningful connections, but only to deliberately frustrate us. What are they to make of Sara and Albert (John Jarratt), brother and sister orphans who, separated in life, are touched by the mystery of the rock? Sara pines for her brother while she is alone; Albert seems to have a vision in a dream (coincidence or telepathy?) as Sara, utterly desolate at the loss of Miranda and unable to remain at Appleyard College, kills herself.
Other relationships in the film are left ambiguous. As Mrs Appleyard becomes more and more distraught, she confesses to Mlle de Poitiers her total dependence on Miss McCraw. Implied is a sexual attachment, the repression of which was so complete that it now expresses itself in revulsion: “She let herself be raped on that rock!” Similarly, Miranda’s goodbye wave to Mlle de Poitiers suggests an important link between the two women that is never clarified.
Such details are left in abeyance, thus suspending us in what the French call signifiance – traces of meaning, fragments of sense, but never a coherent, fixed, final truth delivered easily to us by the film’s end.
I believe Picnic at Hanging Rock to be the finest film of its kind produced in Australia. Its excellence is typical of the classics of the fantasy genre, such as Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943) – films as much, if not more, about themselves and their shifting, disorientating relationship with the spectator, as about a world full of mysterious events.
Note: this analysis in based on the original version of the film. The 1998 re-release supervised by Weir is shorter by seven minutes. In a newspaper note on the film from that year, I found the film far less engaging and persuasive than I previously did, but agreed that the Director’s Cut works, as a whole, integrated work, better than the original.
© Adrian Martin 1979