As I find myself slap bang in the middle of the 70s in the Film7070 challenge, I can think of nothing better than check out the film that put the Australian master Peter Weir on the map. So, this week I check out his 1975 award winning film Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The year is 1900 and the students of Appleyard College for girls, along with a number of teachers, take a trip to Hanging Rock to celebrate Valentine’s Day. After a sleepy afternoon, students Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), Marion (Jane Vallis) and Irma (Karen Robson), followed by Edith (Christine Schuler), get permission from one of the teachers to explore the rock for their studies. But as they ascend further to the summit, a strange event occurs and as the terrified Edith runs back to the group, the other girls remain missing.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is, at the very least, a peculiar watch. It morphs into many different things throughout its runtime, beginning as a story with undertones of sexual awakenings and a sense of escape, set in the stiff and prudish lifestyle of Appleyard. Then, as we get to the rock and the events leading up to the disappearance, it turns into a hauntingly hypnotic piece of cinema, using Weir’s dreamy style to create a great sense of the unknown. After that, it settles back down and drenches the film in the mystery of the missing girls. The shifts in tone, I believe, are the director’s masterstroke. They are so jarring and disorienting – especially the scenes on the rock – that you are unable to fight extreme sense of dread.
And the way Weir uses Hanging Rock itself, like something out of a supernatural horror, has a magnetising aura. The characters are drawn to it just as they want to find out the truth and, like the audience, want to go that little bit further to experience or witness what happened that lead to the girls’ disappearance. It’s also a mystery film that stays a mystery – there’s no pulling back of the curtain or explanation, which in itself adds to the strangeness of movie as there really isn’t a proper third act. There are some conclusions to a couple of characters but you’re made very aware that the story continues long after the credits roll. I’m sure many would find this unsatisfying, but in my eyes it just enhances its lasting quality.
Like a few select films, this has the power to put you in a sort of dreamy trance when you watch it; however, it’s not only the director’s visuals that create the hypnotic aesthetic. The music used in the film is perfect. Everything from the playful panpipes to the loud booming track when the girls are on the rock fits so well into to the incredible soundscape and only heightens the sense of dread I mention before. At the other end of the spectrum, Weir uses eerie silence just as effectively, which to me suggests that he wanted to use as many tools that he had to create a truly puzzling experience.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is an intriguing mystery that, although maybe a bit slow in places, manages to capture the unsettling atmosphere, not only of the event itself, but of the aftermath and the consequential demise of some of the people closely involved in it. A strange but very effective flick.