Thursday 30 March 2017

We Don't Go Back #39: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

On Valentine's Day 1900, a group of pupils and teachers from Appleyard College, an exclusive girls' school, went for a picnic at Hanging Rock, near Mount Macedon, in the State of Victoria. Four of them went up the rock to explore, despite having been forbidden to do so. By the end of the day, three girls and a teacher had vanished. One of the girls turned up a week later. But the other two girls and their teacher would never be found.
Hanging Rock.
Hanging Rock is a real place, and while the narrative above is a fiction, Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, filmed by Peter Weir in 1975, apparently caught enough imaginations that many people thought it was true.

The film introduces the school, its pupils, and its principal, the redoubtable Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts). The girls are excited to go on their annual picnic, relish the chance to go outside and be free for a while (they will take a great deal of pleasure in being allowed to take off their gloves). The focus initially falls on two young women: orphaned Sara (Margaret Nelson) and willowy, ethereal Miranda (Anne Lambert). They are best friends, and there is ample evidence to suggest that Sara's feelings for Miranda have more than a touch of the romantic to them, and that this is acknowledged and indulged by Miranda. Miranda is charmed. She carries an aura. And she knows something will happen today.
You must learn to love someone else...
Miranda: You must learn to love someone else apart from me, Sara. I won't be here much longer.
Sara isn't allowed to go; the reasons for this will be explained in due course, but for the meantime, she is left behind to learn poetry (but not to write it; this is frowned on. Instead she has to memorise the stultifying verses of Felicia Hemans). Miranda and the others spend a lazy summer afternoon by the Rock. They read poetry, pick flowers, eat some of the cakes and sandwiches and leave the rest to the bugs. The afternoon extends in the way that summer afternoons like that do, into eternity. Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) seems to feel a mild disquiet, a dreamy puzzlement at the lonely beauty of the afternoon. 
Miranda is a Botticelli angel.
All the watches stop at midday.

As Miranda leads Irma, Marion and Edith (Karen Robson, Jane Vallis, Christine Schuler) on a jaunt up the rock, Mademoiselle de Poitiers (Helen Morse) looks up from the art book she is reading and observes that Miranda resembles a Botticelli angel.

Except, in fact, Mlle. de Poitiers doesn't say that Miranda resembles a Botticelli angel. She says she is one. She's not quite real, you see. She's otherworldly. Ghostly.
Miranda: Everything begins... and ends... at exactly the right time and place.
Nature intrudes.
Also present at the rock are a wealthy family of the region; their teenaged son Michael (Christopher Guard, cinema's first Frodo Baggins) and the stable lad Albert (John Jarratt, best known now as the villain of Wolf Creek), good friends beyond the class divide, are the last to see the girls as they go up the rock. Both young men fall in love, in their own way.

And then the young women vanish. They stop to nap in the sun, and then Edith, who insisted on tagging along and moaned the whole time, wakes up and sees Miranda, Irma and Marion walk like sleepwalkers into a gap in the rock. And they're gone.

Miss McCraw, who (it is explained later) had gone to find the three missing girls, is also gone.

What happens then?
I'll ask you not to say such crude things, Albert.
Not much, to be honest.

Yesterday, I mentioned in a text to Jon that I was going to write about Picnic at Hanging Rock and his reply went: "zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz." And that's not an entirely unfair assessment. I suppose that in much the same way that Helen (which is actually, if you think about it, one of Picnic at Hanging Rock's closest relatives in more than one way; I could also mention The Falling here) is either a thing of entrancing beauty or one of the most excruciatingly dull things you've ever seen, with very little middle ground, Picnic at Hanging Rock is tenaciously, obstinately slow. Details are obsessed over, much as the people of the region begin to obsess over the missing women. In the few moments where passions rise, they rise briefly.

I like it a lot, but it is slow. It's deliberately slow. Hell, it's the only film I've ever seen where the Director's Cut is shorter than the release version. If that slowness is frustrating to you, well, yes, you're not alone in that. If you're not sold on the languid, eerie beauty of the thing within the first ten minutes, seriously, do yourself a favour and go and watch something else you'll enjoy more, because it's not going to change tone or pace at all.
Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.
Picnic at Hanging Rock doesn't just fail to offer a solution: it goes out of its way to negate any solutions there might be. Michael and Albert might seem to be prime suspects; except they're as traumatised as anyone and the film explicitly presents them as innocent. People say to each other "there must be a solution." There isn't, and the film does not allow there to be one. The mystery of what happened to the girls is inexplicable, and when Irma turns up, a week later, she cannot remember what happened.
I prefer the work of Mrs Hemans.
You see the other supporting characters become obsessed with the missing girls, or become consumed with grief. Local workers speculate about when exactly a solution will turn up. Mrs Appleyard feels a personal affront that the rock would dare to do this to the girls, and that Miss McCraw would fail so badly.
Mrs Appleyard: I came to depend so much on Greta McCraw. So much masculine intellect. I came to rely on that woman. Trust her. How could she allow herself to be spirited away – lost – raped – murdered in cold blood like a silly schoolgirl on that wretched Hanging Rock?
Michael and Albert take it upon themselves to find the girls when the search parties can't (and they find more than anyone else). Right up to the end of the film, Michael is haunted, figuratively and perhaps literally, by Miranda. And Sara, facing expulsion and a humiliating return to the orphanage, resembles nothing more than the lame kid who wasn't able to follow the Pied Piper into the mountain.
Smile please, gentlemen.
The Pied Piper comparison isn't without relevance: the visual language of the girls' journey up Hanging Rock suggests a labyrinth, a place that opens up for them. Joan Lindsay's own written solution for her mystery, withheld until after her death, is fantastical in ways that support this reading. The landscape becomes a place out of time, where space opens up and allows the passage into the otherworld.

But that feeling the characters in the film have when faced with Hanging Rock, and how liminal (note to self: 10 points for using the word "liminal") and uncanny it feels, of course makes no account of its sacredness. The indigenous people of Australia are entirely absent; they have been erased from the area and the story in every sense. Yes, the Rock, its shadowy crags filmed to look like a succession of faces in simulacrum, might make the colonists disappear, but the colonists have already disappeared the original inhabitants and keepers of the Rock.

The dreamlike pace of the film is belied a little by the way the in which the cinematography grounds everything. You see insects, birds, mud. Everything is alive, but it's not human. And that grounding, the way the film makes the people somehow insubstantial and ghostly and the land solid creates a feeling akin to one of those endless, strange summer afternoons where you find yourself alone and it seems like you're the only person in the world, which we've all had from time to time (or maybe it's just me, in which case forget I said that).
In Picnic at Hanging Rock the landscape is, if not strictly malevolent, an opening through which we can pass and never come out, a place in which we can become so very lost that no trace of us will ever be found. And perhaps the fear of this that this engenders, the affront, comes from a feeling that we deserve some sort of cosmic justice.

I'm not an especial fan of Peter Weir's later films. The Truman Show and Dead Poets Society both try so very hard to be be weighty and full of meaning, when both films are actually pretty shallow (and in the case of the latter, so utterly crass that I get enraged even thinking about it), but Picnic at Hanging Rock has as its prime virtue the simple fact that it doesn't just lack real meaning like those two later films, it denies it and denies the possibility of it. There is no closure, no explanation, and that fact is in and of itself the centre of the film: it is built on that absence, and everything in the narrative points it. The landscape will not apologise, and the film sees no reason to do so.