Picnic at Hanging RockPicnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Starring Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Helen Morse, Anne Lambert, Vivean Gray, Kirsty Child, Margaret Nelson, and Christine Schuler.
Written by Clifford Green based on the novel by Joan Lindsay (which, in turn, was based loosely on a true story).
Directed by Peter Weir.

Grade: A

Review and analysis by Carlo Cavagna.

At the end of the millennium, few people give a moment's thought to the indigenous religious faiths of the so-called "Western" world (i.e., Europe, North America, Australia). They have virtually disappeared from conscious awareness, existing only within the confines of academia and in the minds of a few eccentrics. Yet Europe gave birth to numerous spiritual traditions that worshipped various personifications of the features and forces of nature, or the forces of nature themselves. Other indigenous pre-Christian traditions, such as the Australian aborigines, held similar beliefs. The common thread among all these traditions was a profound reverence for the earth and a belief that certain sites, such as rocks, hills, or mounds, were places charged with special power.

All of these "pagan" traditions were supplanted by Christianity. Although Catholicism admittedly was influenced over the centuries by pagan ritual and thought, Protestantism rejected  pagan influences in favor of a more austere, intellectual approach to spirituality. Regardless of sect, however, Christianity teaches that, in general, God has made humans the masters of the earth, which is devoid of power or vitality of its own. To the extent that Christianity recognizes that raw natural forces exist--sexual energy, for example--it tends to associate them with temptation and evil. Such forces must be repressed and denied. The world is flawed and imperfect; only in heaven, a distinct and separate place, does perfection exist. Nothing could be more contrary to the teachings of the religions that existed before Christianity arrived.

In Picnic at Hanging Rock, director Peter Weir's second feature film, Weir explores what happens when long-disregarded and discounted "pagan" forces touch the inhibited world of Victorian/Edwardian-era society in Australia, circa 1900. The story opens at Appleyard College, a boarding school for teenage girls. The girls are all perfectly molded china dolls trained to conform to the strictures of the time, their vitality and budding sexuality suppressed by their regimented schedule and constricting clothing. Early in the film Weir shows us a blooming rosebud being flattened in a flower press--a harsh metaphor for the girls and the school.The girls at Hanging Rock

On Valentine's Day, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the strict headmistress, sends the girls on an ill-fated outing to Hanging Rock, a massive outcropping of volcanic origin. Before they go, the disciplinarian Mrs. Appleyard describes the rock in unintentionally suggestive terms, describing it as forced up from below the ground in a "highly viscous state." The fact that the outing occurs on Valentine's Day is also suggestive of carnality. The holiday itself originates from an ancient Roman festival of sexual license called Lupercalia, which occurred on the ides of February and was dedicated to Juno Februata, goddess of the fever of love. Young men would select partners for erotic games by drawing small papers with women's names on them--obviously the ancestors of modern-day Valentine cards, which the girls give to one another in Picnic at Hanging Rock. As with other pagan celebrations, Christianity attempted to suppress Lupercalia by co-opting it, designating it the day of the martyred St. Valentine.

Hanging Rock itself turns out to be a raw, primitive place. The solitary outcropping is a craggy maze of passages and hidden recesses, and its exposed cliff faces feature odd formations that look unmistakably like faces. With dreamy cinematography and portentous music, Peter Weir gently evokes the presence of something supernatural without being obvious about it.

After lunch, three of the Appleyard girls request permission to go for a walk by themselves. One of the girls is Miranda (Anne Lambert), a graceful, pretty blonde who is the most popular student at the school. Everyone seems irresistibly drawn to her. Miranda's roommate, the melancholy Sara (Margaret Nelson), appears to be actually in love with her. When Mrs. Appleyard excludes Sara from the outing to Hanging Rock because her tuition hasn't been paid, Sara is heartbroken. Similarly, Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard), a young man who spies Miranda as she and her friends begin their walk, is immediately enchanted. Yet Miranda seems to be preparing to depart Appleyard. She quotes from A Dream Within a Dream, a leave-taking poem by Edgar Allan Poe. She tells Sara that she "won't be here much longer."

Just as there is something otherworldly about Hanging Rock, there is something otherworldly about Miranda herself. It's as if she, too, is the incarnation of some sort of elemental force. Miranda at Hanging RockAs Miranda leaves to explore the rock, she turns and waves goodbye to one of the teachers, Miss DePortiers (Helen Morse), who exclaims, "Now I know!" "What do you know?" asks Miss MacCraw (Vivean Gray). "I know that Miranda is a Botticelli angel," responds Miss DePortiers. The Renaissance artist Botticelli was one of the first to paint classical (i.e., pagan) scenarios after centuries in which Biblical scenes were the only acceptable subject matter for an artist. Tellingly, Botticelli's most famous paintings include Venus Rising from the Waves, depicting the nude goddess standing on a large seashell floating on the sea, and The Rites of Spring, which portrays the nymph Chloris being transformed into Flora, the goddess of the spring, while the Three Graces, the companions of Venus, dance nearby. Three is also the number of girls who leave to explore Hanging Rock.

It will not spoil the suspense to say that the three girls vanish without a trace, because Weir gives this fact away in a caption at the beginning of the movie. Miranda and her two friends float like nymphs through the trees and boulders, while poor dumpy Edith (Christine Schuler), who has insisted on tagging along, has difficulty keeping pace. Edith pleads with the girls to return back to the others. They ignore her, and continue their surreal ascent of Hanging Rock. Gradually, they strip away layers of clothing, the confining trappings of civilization, until finally the three figures, dressed in a few stitches of white and holding hands, disappear into the upper reaches of the rock.

The second half of the movie examines the enigma of the girls' disappearance and the deleterious effects of the incident on stodgy Appleyard College. Weir never explains exactly why the girls disappear, and the movie is stronger because of it. Numerous explanations are suggested, ranging from the mundane to the supernatural. Did they fall into a hole? Were they raped and kidnapped? Or were they spirited away some supernatural power? Weir suggests at times that Miranda has turned into a swan, an obvious symbol of beauty and metamorphosis, but also more than that. The Heavenly Nymphs (Asparas) of Hindu mythology were swan maidens, and in European folklore, the swan was associated with Venus and with the Valkyries (warrior maidens who wore magic swan-feather cloaks to transform themselves) of Norse legend. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about the girls' fate.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is no simple mystery. Appleyard College comes into direct, visceral contact with unseen forces--forces about which the film's characters have little knowledge, and what knowledge they do have is scholarly and theoretical. After her almost sexual description of the origins of Hanging Rock, Mrs. Appleyard reduces the rock to a homework assignment, informing her charges that she expects them to write an essay on its geology. Later, the students amuse themselves by reciting Shakespearian sonnets ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"), but they have no experience with the passions behind the words. At the moment of the three girls' disappearance, Edith, who is trailing behind, becomes terrified and lets out a piercing scream. She witnesses something, but she is unable to explain, or even remember, what she saw.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a movie that I would recommend to everyone, but if the film's themes sound at all interesting, you will find that Picnic at Hanging Rock is a highly absorbing and thought-provoking two hours. No detail in the movie is accidental. You will be able to watch it over and over and continue to discover nuances and possibilities that you hadn't seen before.

Review and analysis © March 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © Picnic Productions Pty. Ltd. All rights reserved.

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A Dream Within a Dream

by Edgar Allan Poe
Take this kiss upon the brow!
 And, in parting from you now,
 This much let me avow-
 You are not wrong, who deem
 That my days have been a dream;
 Yet if hope has flown away
 In a night, or in a day,
 In a vision, or in none,
 Is it therefore the less gone?
 All that we see or seem
 Is but a dream within a dream.

 I stand amid the roar
 Of a surf-tormented shore,
 And I hold within my hand
 Grains of the golden sand-
 How few! yet how they creep
 Through my fingers to the deep,
 While I weep--while I weep!
 O God! can I not grasp
 Them with a tighter clasp?
 O God! can I not save
 One from the pitiless wave?
 Is all that we see or seem
 But a dream within a dream?