Friday, March 9, 2012

Lace, Sun, and Lizards: Picnic at Hanging Rock

Not gonna lie. I did not first learn of Peter Weir's 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock through my non-existent thorough study of cinema. I learned of it in a fashion editorial, where a dress I liked was described as "very Picnic at Hanging Rock," which I then Googled. I watched the trailer and some scenes on Youtube, and then added it to my Netflix queue at position #1. Then a few weeks later, I watched the sensual, eerie music video for Alpine's "Hands," and the film was referenced again in the comments. I was motivated to finally watch the current Netflix DVD I'd had for way too long.

Adapted from the novel by Joan Lindsay, this is a hard movie to pin down. What happens in it? On Valentine's Day in 1900 in Australia, a group of teenage girls from a strict British-run boarding school go for a picnic at Hanging Rock. Three of the girls and a teacher do not return. They are searched for. One is eventually found. What is it about? That is up for debate. Both budding and long-repressed sexuality. The folly of Europeans moving into lands they hardly know. The futility of hanging on to something that has already slipped away. Imperialist British culture and its attempts to conquer and contain all in its path: continents, nature, women...

No really. I love my bow. Thanks, Victorianism.

When the story starts, the girls are already preparing to go out to that fateful picnic. They are romantic in temperament and sisterly in affection, helping each other with corsets and flouncy white dresses, reading love poetry aloud, surrounded by Valentines and flowers. We are introduced to ethereal Miranda, beloved of her roommate: plain, serious-faced Sara. Sara is told by a similarly mousy teacher that she will not be allowed on the outing. Headmistress Mrs. Appleyard sends them off with strict instructions regarding gloves and safety. A bespectacled girl looks annoyed by the admonishments against tomboy antics. And the students, chaperoned by affectionate young Mademoiselle de Poitiers and scholarly older Miss McCraw are taken by carriage into the wilderness.

The ridiculous gap between aristocratic Victorian British culture and the reality of Australia becomes even more apparent when they reach the picnic grounds. Another group is there: a British colonel, his wife, their nephew Michael, and Albert, their roughshod Australia-raised servant (a compelling John Jarratt). This wealthy British family's starched collars and heavy clothing are terribly out of place in this hot land of poisonous ants and snakes - a fact they seem determined to ignore. While the old couple continue with their proper English lunch, the two young men bond over a bottle of wine.

Did you learn nothing from Heart of Darkness?

In their white dresses, the girls lounge in the shade, reading poetry and playing with each others' hair. Then three of the girls - Miranda, the glasses-wearing Marion, and dark-haired Irma - ask to study the base of the rock. They are granted permission, and chubby-girl caricature Edith (yes, there's a scene of her shoveling down cake) insists on going along. As they head farther away, catching the attention of Michael and Albert in the process, the behavior of Miranda, Marion, and Irma becomes odder and odder. They walk with purpose, occasionally stopping to talk philosophy, remove articles of clothing, and dance. And then finally, they leave Edith behind and continue up the rock and out of sight.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Appleyard anxiously awaits the return of her charges and employees. When they finally do return, they are distressed and the three girls, as well as Miss McCraw, are gone. Were they raped and murdered? Did they fall into a crevice? A massive search turns up nothing. Michael's story is inconsistent, but there are no bodies, no clothes, no anything. Weeks pass, and although it is clear they are no longer on the rock, or likely alive at all, an increasingly Miranda-obsessed Michael talks Albert into another dangerous search. Strangely enough, they find Irma - concussed and corsetless. But her reappearance only adds to the mystery: the rock had already been thorouglhly searched, she claims to have no memory of the events, and while her hands are badly scratched, her bare feet are clean and unmarked.

I want a dress like this to hike in.

Why do these four go missing? Why is Irma returned? We are given so little about them and their inner lives, but perhaps these four women were the most internally at odds with the oppressive ideal of Victorian womanhood. Miranda's close, sensual relationship with Sarah - was it more than platonic? Sarah writes poetry about Miranda and tells her photograph that she loves her. Miss McCraw's musings on the geological history of Hanging Rock hint at an intellectual mind longing for more than the life of a spinster school marm. What did Marion want from life? What desires does Irma harbor? I am reminded of Tarjei Vesaas's novel The Ice Palace, in which an adolescent girl conflicted about her sexuality makes a fateful trek to a frozen waterfall.

Weir wisely avoids falling into the formulas of a mystery, horror, or police procedural. Shots of the stunning but threatening Australian landscape and wildlife are plentiful and lingering; expository scenes and dialogue are minimalist. Gheorghe Zamfir's dramatic pan flute is often the only accompaniment. The beauty and power of this approach makes the few scenes near the end that veer into camp (a very unsubtle descent into alcoholism, a foreboding voiceover) all the more jarring.

After Joan Lindsay's death, a previously unpublished chapter, "The Secret at Hanging Rock," was released, giving an earlier version of what happens to the girls and Miss McCraw. However, I think the choice to leave it out of the novel was a wise one. While the ambiguity will be annoying to some, a resolution doesn't feel fitting here.

Screenshots from Blu-ray

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