When I was in college, I saw a trailer for Picnic at Hanging Rock at the legendary Michigan Theater. It looked good, but I never ended up seeing it, and this was at a theater that sometimes only showed movies once. A few weeks ago I heard it mentioned very randomly on The Flop House podcast, and my desire to see it reemerged. So when my wife asked me if I wanted to watch a movie, this was cued up. Based on rewatching the trailer and what was discussed on the podcast, I expected something profound. As is the trend, my expectations were not met, and I instead got something profoundly weird. That’s not to say it wasn’t interesting, or even good. In fact, it’s been over a week and I can’t stop thinking about this film.
First and foremost, Picnic at Hanging Rock has its issues. As it opens with a quote about “a dream within a dream,” it’s not unexpected that the cinematography is intentionally hazy (at times shot through a bridal veil – seriously) and the score prominently features the pan flute. Once you accept that this is how it looks and sounds, however, there are other issues. Director Peter Weir famously cast non-actors in all but the major roles, and it’s clear. As this was one of Weir’s first films, I’m not sure if the exaggerated blocking (there are many scenes of ladies dramatically swooning) results from his or his cast’s inexperience. The story also has some distractingly corny moments: characters helpfully observe that their watches have stopped in the vicinity of the titular rock. The only thing missing is a wise old aborigine telling the girls to “stay away from that evil place.”
But despite Picnic at Hanging Rock‘s shortcomings, there is something below its surface. Contemporary reviews (and one modern podcast) discuss the suppressed lesbian tension, the toll that the buttoned-down manners and even dress of the era takes on women, or even – in Roger Ebert’s review – the chasm between new English settlers and the ancient, unknowable land of Australia. (Although I’m pretty sure Ebert didn’t mean this literally, I was struck by how many of the girls had English rather than Australian accents, but this may be result of Weir re-dubbing most of his non-actors’ flubbed lines.)
Personally, Hanging Rock reminded me of the Marabar caves in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, whose power so deeply affects one character that she talks about them until her death, a death perhaps caused by the caves themselves. It’s not that the caves, or Hanging Rock in this case, are evil; they’re places whose power is both unknowable and overwhelming. Ebert also saw the parallel to A Passage to India, but my wife will testify under oath that I made this connection BEFORE reading his review.
Less dramatically than notions of repressed desire and emotion, the film offers a small rumination on the social dynamics of the school. Four girls explore the rock, but only one returns immediately; later, a second girl is found. When the second girl returns to school, she’s accosted by her hysterical classmates, including the first girl. Wading into the mob, a teacher grabs the first girl and slaps her. This sounds like standard schoolgirl movie melodrama. But one of the missing girls is clearly the most popular girl at the school, and this teacher has some (apparently platonic) affection for her. The first girl is clearly the most unpopular girl at school. Does the teacher slap her because she’s hysterical? Because she blames her for abandoning the others on the rock? Because they were popular and she wasn’t, but yet she made it back and they didn’t? Picnic at Hanging Rock has no definitive answer for this. In the end, it’s as unknowable as everything else.
I didn’t enjoy Picnic at Hanging Rock; as I said, I found it too weird. With a little restraint and more focus, I think it could have been an extremely powerful film. But flawed as it is, I still can’t stop thinking about it.