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Picnic at Hanging Rock

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Finally got around to seeing this movie and it's quite a mindf*** - definitely the kind of film that I think merits serious discussion on MoFo, so I thought I'd open this page for discussion. I just finished it so I'm a bit scatterbrained right now, more in-depth thoughts later. Needless to say it's quite a singular piece of work and one that will appeal to the "puzzle film" junkies around here such as myself All thoughts are welcome!
"Puns are the highest form of literature." -Alfred Hitchcock

Perverse exploitation of the viewer

That's how I epitomize Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Even though I can't say I enjoyed it as much as I wanted (I saw the director's cut), it's easy for me to acknowledge how brilliant this movie is. One of the greatest eye opening cinematic experiences I ever had. Here's the review I wrote for it: (it needs some rewriting to correct spelling and grammar though)

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) - 8

I saw the Director's Cut version, where Peter Weir eliminated around 7 minutes of play from the original theatrical release. I read several opinions from people who deplored such move because they judged it harmful to the original quality of the movie, I don't know if this is why I failed to connect or to feel engaged in the experience... a shame. Shame because in retrospective I realise that Picnic at Hanging Rock was one of the most enriching cinematic experiences I ever had, I'll explain why in a bit.

Picnic at Hanging Rock reminds me of Caché from Michael Haneke and L'Aventura from Michelangelo Antonioni, 3 films where we are haunted by unsolved mysteries, but each one with a different premiss. The australian film seems to be the one that truly focuses in exploring the emotional and psychological effects that the elements of mystery and the inexplicable have upon the human subject and does it in a very sagacious manner. This movie plays an admittedly manipulative game with the viewer, the less attentive might be led to believe that the depicted events actually happened in real life (like me in the first view). The mystery is about the disappearance of 4 people, 3 young girls and 1 woman, in the whereabouts of a geological formation known as Hanging Rock and the movie depicts, up to a certain point, the efforts that the local community goes through to find the missing ones and the influence the tragedy exerts upon certain characters. But a more careful look reveals that we are in fact observing a work of pure fiction with possibly another layer of meaning underneath the main coating and there are even some prophetic revelations before the impossible disappearance phenomena. Right at the beginning the premiss of this work is conveyed through a voice over citing a beautiful phrase inspired by a poem from Edgar Allan Poe in which the keyword is "Dream", the gist is to make us experiment a surreal universe where the convoluted logic of the reality is reminiscent of dreams with everything it brings as emotional and psychological imprint. This is not done in a literal way à la David Lynch. Instead in a subtly evocative fashion because the bizarreness is not immediately obvious to the viewer, it is suggested and unraveled little by little while the depicted world never departs from its realistic and coherent appearance at the surface even if frustratingly hermetic for those expecting or hoping to see the mystery solved.

Until we arrive at the scene which, in my opinion, is the culmination of Picnic at Hanging Rock, it was this instance that made the "click" in my head where I really understood the premiss of this film - the out of nowhere and unexpected collective hysteria in the dance class demanding explanations to a key piece of the mystery that had been rescued alive but makes no attempt whatsoever to clarify about what happened. Seems like Peter Weir deliberately wanted to repress and frustrate our impetus to know the truth throughout the movie so that he could forge this brilliant scene where, in a way, he gives us what we really want to see after so much ceremony but where at the same time he truly assumes the exploitive and dreamlike nature of this work, it's clear to me because what happens here is highly unlikely in reality so there has to be a second meaning. I loved this cinematic execution because it was something new, I never experienced this before in cinema, at least not in this way so subliminally alluded by the plot itself. In this scene (which has made its way to my favorite scenes list and seems carved out of a Lynch masterpiece) the film becomes self-evident to me - here several key characters of the story are developed in ways that allude to the perspectives (role and intent) of the public (us viewers) and performer (director) through their actions and the way they are treated. This is where the film basically tells us that it is performing a perverse exploitation of our own feelings and attention, so it becomes self-evident. What impresses me is the amount of thought and craft put into it to work so well, it's genius. Perverse exploitation because the film makes it clear that it won't give us any satisfaction, this is a game where the director is in dominant position, it's his film so he dictates the rules. One might think that he "plays dirty" because he's only flirting with us and we remain in the blind (as if tied to a wall from where we cannot move) about the mystery leaving us all the more vexed... or not because it's now obvious that the movie is not at all about what happened to those vanishing girls. The game is practically over now, the film ends shortly after this scene. Not everyone will make the same reading as I do since this film is relatively open to interpretation and those who do might not go well along with this exploitive agenda and think that Weir is being unfair and arrogant, but not really because this movie is actually based on a novel and with such reaction one could fail to notice the extraordinary cinematic feat, in my opinion, from Peter Weir. I can't help but grin every time I watch this scene, it's so revealing and even hilarious that I can only contemplate in wonder.

There's one or two sub-plots whose significance or symbolism I don't feel comfortable discussing yet, but I believe all of it serves to support (or possibly illustrate) the movie's main perverse agenda. This movie has substantial thematic depth, nature is portrayed as an hermetic and potentially dangerous world to Men, the Hanging Rock, one of the main characters of the movie, is often presented in a sinister and haunting tone, animals are constant appearances even in the most improbable places and yet they are as much strange and oblivious to us as we are to them, plants can move, etc... It's apparent that the intent is to show nature as a world impossible to understand, not governed by the same rules as those of the world which humans have built for themselves to evoke the fear of the unknown and incomprehensible, specially around Hanging Rock. Maybe it could be said that Picnic at Hanging Rock is a Psychological Horror movie, and there are indeed a few creepy and disturbing moments, it has elements of Drama, Mystery and Horror. In my opinion, it's above all a self-evident manipulative endeavour intending to engulf us in a pseudo-dreamlike experience and doesn't reduce itself to any particular genre.

So why didn't I feel engaged in this movie? If I see it again (I saw it 2 times before writing these impression) maybe it will have a better grip on me but I doubt... It wasn't the pseudo-dreamlike experience it was supposed to be, I didn't find it boring to watch but I didn't enjoy it either... I think my main issue is with the overall style of the movie and lack of polishment in some acting subjects, it seriously distracts me sometimes. I never manage to extract anything appreciable, or beautiful, or interesting while I watch it (except for that brilliant scene and a few creepier moments), I've seen a lot of praise for the cinematography but I honestly didn't care. The notable soundtrack works to build the singular feel of the movie as much as it does to enervate and distract me often. I will certainly give it another go and try to tune into it, there's a lot to love and admire here and I want to have the complete package by fully engaging in the experience, but I will also search for the theatrical version which many say it's better.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a singular work where Peter Weir performs, in my opinion, a sagacious exploitation of the viewer and for that I admire him. The merit is not all his alone though, this film is based on a novel of the same name authored by Joan Lindsay. This was such an enriching experience that I have included the book in my wishlist, it's the first movie ever to spice my interest for its source literature. I'm taking my chances with this novel hoping to get from literature what I got from this brilliant work of cinema. Picnic at Hanging Rock is mandatory watch for any cinephile!

I'm always recommending this, so I'm pleased to see how muc you've enjoyed it, Hitch. I really should sit down and watch it again.
5-time MoFo Award winner.

Almost everybody has a hankering for mysteries, but it is likely to be an abstract hankering, and when a mystery comes up in one's own experience, one is likely to treat it in a way that warns everybody else that one is not easily imposed upon.
-- Charles Fort
#31 on SC's Top 100 Mofos list!!

And when I'm all alone I feel I don't wanna hide
One of my favourite films. Here is what I had to say about it in another thread:

I was browsing through my hard-drive just now and discovered my writing on mythology's relation with Picnic at Hanging Rock I conducted it about three years ago as part of an assignment. I thought I'd share it as it gave me great insight inside understand the sheer brilliance of the film. It's not very well written, but I thought it was long-lost, so rediscovering it was cool, if only to remind me of Weir's great film:

Structuralism, mythology and Picnic at Hanging Rock

Mythology is a compelling depiction into understanding the economic, social, environmental and religious frameworks of a distinct time period. Myths escort us into various era and help us grasp the very buildings and nature of their social structures. The story of Picnic at Hanging Rock, a 1975 Australian film directed by Peter Weir, is not only one of the figureheads of the Australian New Wave movement, but perhaps more importantly, one of the most nuanced and consequential depictions of humanity's perplexing and confounding relationship with the Australian landscape. Moreover, it also summons as a compelling piece about the carnal and lascivious nature of women, oppressed by the despotic and tyrannous institutions that comprised early Australian settlement. If we examine the film through the eyes of Chalude Levi-Strauss' alternative theory of Structuralism, we can highlight the heavily evident binary opposites; namely, nature/culture and how humanity's distinctive - albeit discorded - relationship with nature affects the social order of their very community. Here is an accessible retelling of the Hanging Rock myth:

The myth of Hanging Rock is simple in its telling, but profound in its meaning. The Appleyard Students arrive at Hanging Rock and Miranda, Mariona, Irma and de Poitious climb the Hanging Rock without permission. They then climb the rock and begin having feelings of sexual urges and an eerie, almost infatuated, attraction to the rock. After taking their shoes and some of their clothing off, they vanish without a trace, only leaving de Poitious behind in distraught and agony. The community launches a search to try and find the missing girls but they fail.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a very intricate and dense piece, but if we adopt the Structuralism theory which proposes the thematic notion that all myths have coherent reasoning and are essentially built around the ideas of oppositions between forms, we can identity the very inner intent and merit of the myth. As Structuralism suggests, in order to understand the legend, it needs to be analysed compositely, which usually stems in the substructure of a society/community. That is, political, economic, environmental, social and religious issues that exist within a society, and it is the myths that reflect these tensions, frets, and concerns. As a result, they usually form into binary opposites (this is according to Levi-Strauss' alternative theory of Structuralism). When applying this to Picnic at Hanging Rock, the subjects of humanity's relationship with the Australian landscape become more accessible - Australia during the break of the 20th century was becoming more urbanised and inhabited (a lot of this predominately has to do with the Gold Rush). The country consisted of Anglo-Saxons - englishmen and women who elected to reside in the state during the unearthing of the country in the 18h century. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were often disapproved and largely frowned upon, a culture and group that heavily idolised its environmental bodywork and viewed its natural surroundings as equal or even superior to them. Furthermore, European Settlers had a distinct perception of Australian nature and “coming to terms” with the landscape is one of the primary thematic subjects explored in various Australian films and other art works. Tensions arose in the community as the Anglo-Saxon's were more contemporary, often neglecting the environment and beginning to make Australia more industrialised, only at the expense of its picturesque landscape. According to the Structuralism theory, this friction between the two cultural groups, which derived from the community, grew and uniformly established the conflict between nature and culture. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, culture (i.e., the Appleyard college and the students) are confronted and amalgamated with nature (i.e., Hanging Rock). One being a product of its very own environment and the other being exploiters of a mystic and ambiguous land.

Thematically, Picnic at Hanging Rock is centred around humanity's confrontation with nature; when the ostentatious and repressive school students merge with the transcendental Hanging Rock, previously restrained and smothered emotions unleash. What was mostly depicted was feelings of exoticness and sexuality. The myth elects to use this rock as a metaphor; a paranormal and mystical force that seemingly absorbs you in magnetically with its alluring appearance, and releases the truest side of one self. The initial opposition eventually becomes united; in the opening sequence of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Miranda and several other school students are “inside”, inhabited in a world of ostentation, where their thought-pattern, ideologies, and behaviour are dictated by the institution. They are seemingly infatuated with St. Valentine's Day, a national holiday centred around love, affection and infatuation; even though none of these characters have experienced physical sexuality, amorous and erotic thoughts are circulating throughout the room.

They become instantly mystified by Hanging Rock and untroubled when leaving their orderly institution. Once they are “outside”, Miranda and the other students tour the rock themselves and become sexually open. It is evident their relationship with the Australian landscape was, at first, initially indecisive (i.e., Miranda jumping over the small pond, precautions that her feet will get wet, is reflective of her apprehensive albeit onerous perception of the landscape), but as the students continue to climb the rock, and get higher and more alienated from society (i.e., departing from “culture” and embarking “nature”), the feelings of sexual urges and bewilderedness become more evident, and the release of these previously controlled feelings is symbolic of the Rock's natural, honest, and untainted complexion. These feelings were previously self-controlled by the educational institution (an all-girls school which further demonstrates the contained nature of their environment), a symbol of the current social order and norms at the time. They become infatuated with the mystic and ambiguous nature of the rock, and become drawn into it. What started as binary opposition ultimately meets to unity - that means, the students, so drawn in by its unparalleled force, unite with the landscape, and the disappearance symbolises not just the integration of culture and nature, but societies acceptance of the Australian landscape, and perhaps, on a further level, the consolidation between the European Settlers and the environmental infrastructure of the land they inhabit.

From a personal standpoint, the myth of Hanging Rock is reflective of humanity's relationship with the Australian landscape and the European Settlers' perception of the environment. The myth is extensively about contrast and how nature and culture intertwine with each other, and what affects they spawn. The school students are increasingly ostracised from the natural world; they abide by strict principals, and live in a Victorian Era environment, where crudeness, profanity, and the expression of sexuality are dilapidated. When given the opportunity to have a “picnic” (a European occupation which suggests the European's cultural imprint on the landscape) at Hanging Rock, they become overwhelmingly enraptured, purely because Miranda and the rest of the students saw Hanging Rock as a symbol for Valentine's Day. They instantly become infatuated with the landscape, but not because it correlates with romance and love (subjects that intrigued Miranda, as suggested in the opening scene of the film where she recites a romantic poem), but because of its timeless, sheer beauty and ambiguity. There is no pragmatic and logical explanation behind the force of Hanging Rock, but that was intentional in this myth; the Rock's awe-inspiring force which flourished the sexual disposal of the students suggests nature's inherent superiority over culture. Culture and social order is criticised here; it is the very social framework that is preventing Miranda and all her schoolmates to act purely on their human emotions (the school master at Appleyard college is almost dictatorial in nature), it is the social norms and conventions that restrict their ability to depict their true, honest behaviours (i.e., which correlates with Signum Freud's ID/EGO theory where, its because of our social, political and economic frameworks, we neglect to act on instinct and desire since we adhere by the social order; a system that seldom meets our inner-most desires and wishes). Nature in this myth is a metamorphic 'object'; it spawns an energy that overhauls the difficulties and problems society has exhibited, and Hanging Rock represents not only the mystical force of Nature, but everything that society seemingly debunks (in this case, inability to sexually express yourself and not adhere by strict confinements).

Ultimately, the myth of Picnic at Hanging Rock is highly complex, highly indistinct, but highly informative. Myths are a guide into the political, economical, religious, and social belief system of any time period, and the myth within Picnic at Hanging Rock explores humanity's relationship with nature, and the process of the European Settlers “coming to terms” with its mystic, ambiguous and even somewhat threatening presence. Such a detailed and dense myth requires the adoption of the Structuralism theory in order to acknowledge its true merit and intent.

Really interesting thoughts you guys. I think the most fascinating thing about Picnic is that it deliberately resists one interpretation, to the point where theorizing about it feels almost irrelevant yet also completely irresistible.

Perverse exploitation of the viewer

That's how I epitomize Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Going off of this, there's a fantastic essay for the new Criterion release that sums up this reading of the film brilliantly: I can totally buy into the idea that Weir is "placing responsibility" into the hands of the viewer; that the film ensures our ideas about the girls' disappearance are indeed ours and not the director's is one of the biggest ways that I think Picnic is a truly unique achievement.

At this point, I feel pretty certain that the rock itself represents some kind of sexual awakening; the girls cannot be found because they have essentially 'left' Victorian society and more specifically the virginal, repressed atmosphere of the school. Where they literally went seems less important to me than the symbolic meaning of their disappearance.

Other elements of the film, however, still leave me puzzled - especially the character of Sara. I don't really understand what her purpose was, from her attraction to Miranda, to her history at an orphanage, to her being kicked out of the school. I imagine the cruelty she experiences at the hands of Mrs. Appleyard is intended to emphasize the headmistress' growing lack of sanity following the girls' disappearance, but this still leaves many aspects of Sara's purpose in the film unexplained.

Time also seems to play a role. I personally feel like it may have something to do with the girls' ages, and how as they grow older their innocence "won't be around much longer", to put things as Miranda did for Sara. I'm interested to see what others have to say about this aspect of the film.

One of the most interesting things, to me at least, is how the reactions of the characters to the girls' disappearance reflect those of the audience. The boys initially feel concern and seek further answers. The headmistress' growing frustration and eventual insanity perhaps refers to the audience member who becomes obsessed with decoding some hidden meaning of the movie. Finally, there is the scene where the schoolgirls hysterically attack the girl who returned from the rock; it happens near the end of the film, where many audience members might be exasperated and frantically searching for some solution to this mystery. This kind of self-reflexivity might be my favorite thing about the film - Weir definitely is not afraid to confront the expectations of his audience with a kind of directness that I have never seen before.

You make an interesting connection regarding time, something that didn't cross my mind yet but worth reflecting upon. Your last paragraph is a nice synthesis of my view of the film.