Tuesday, May 03, 2005

#29: Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975, directed by Peter Weir, screenplay by Cliff Green from the novel by Joan Lindsay.

I imagine in most video stores this is filed under "Drama," but in my book it's a horror movie. Of course, if I were running a video store, I'd put it in drama, too—I don't think most viewers would find this an adequate substitute for Saw. Still, there were parts of it that scared the shit out of me, and I'm not the easiest scare in the world. It's set in Australia in 1900, and tells the story of a group of students at an all-girls boarding school who go on a picnic to celebrate Valentine's Day... a Picnic at Hanging Rock, that is! On the trip, three of the students and one of their teachers disappear under mysterious circumstances; the movie is about their disappearance and its consequences. It's a mystery without a solution. Although Weir presents a few things that might have happened (there are other people at the rock that day, the area is known for poisonous snakes, &c.), in the end, they seem to have been swallowed up by the rock itself.

I'm not sure if it's really fear that the movie produces; there aren't any monsters (except, perhaps, for the headmistress of the school, played by Rachel Roberts), and there aren't any big shock scenes. It borrows from the grammar of horror movies a bit; there are some unexplained tracking shots and other places where the camera suggests that you're seeing things from someone's perspective, but doesn't tell you whose. On the whole, however, this is a very different kind of horror film. I think the conventional emotional arc of a horror movie is to build tension higher and higher until it breaks; you have these moments of revelation (it's Jason's mom! Samarra is evil! Norman's mother is dead!) where all the clues that have been floating around coalesce. Peter Weir managed here to make a movie where that release is missing; there are moments that feel like those archetypical scenes, but they don't reveal anything to the audience. The classic example would be the actual disappearance scene, which is hard to watch more than once. You know that you're witnessing something bad, or at least unsettling, and it's unbearably intense. But you don't know exactly what it is you're seeing, and you don't find out later, either. The most the movie offers you in terms of an answer are some phrases that are repeated; the sorts of things that seem innocent when you first hear them and then take on, if not a darker meaning, a stranger one. Two examples:

  • Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.

  • A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.

Those two sentences do about as good a job at capturing the tone of the movie as I'm going to be able to. There's not much else I want to say about this one, cause the experience of seeing it is very unique and I think benefits from knowing as little as possible about the movie. I defy anyone to watch the last scene with the headmistress without getting really creeped out.

Randoms:

  • The score is performed by Gheorghe Zamfir. Yes, that Zamfir: the Master of the Pan Flute. It's pretty good, though.

  • The Criterion Edition of this is different from the version that showed in theaters in several ways. First, although it's the director's cut, it's shorter than the theatrical version; occasionally (very, very occasionally), directors want to see less of their film on the screen. I don't know if additional scenes were added originally against Weir's wishes, or if he just decided to trim it a bit when given the chance, years later. Second, the DVD is remastered in Dolby 5.1. Which I'm not a big fan of, in theory; I'd like to see it with the same sound it originally played with. In this case, however, I think the movie gains a lot from the remaster, especially with the liberal use of the effects channel during some of the more intense sequences. So I tentatively approve.

  • Peter Weir, of course, has done well for himself in America. He seems to be the master (and commander) of the movie that everyone talks about incessantly the year it comes out, and then everyone forgets completely. The Truman Show is probably the best example of that. Still, that kind of movie makes money. He's currently attached, in theory, to Pattern Recognition, which is my favorite William Gibson novel; it's at Warner Brothers but doesn't have a greenlight. Although Studio System lists it as being in active development, it hasn't had an update to its status since April of 2004, so it may be in turnaround by now. Peter: get this movie made and do it right.

12 comments:

Daniel Nexon said...

The novel was published without its ending chapter; both it and the movie are improved by its absence, if the versions available (or summaries) on the internet are accurate.

And yeah, this filmed completely creaped me out for similar reasons.

Matthew Dessem said...

Daniel,

Interesting -- I'll have to track that down. Much like "A Clockwork Orange," then, huh? But if the ending chapter provides a solution for what happened, I'm not sure I want to know what the author had in mind.

Joseph said...

It's the long still shots of the rocks that creep me out; you almost expect to start seeing faces in the rock.

Matthew Dessem said...

Yeah -- a long static shot can be very, very tense.

Cat People said...

It probably says something about that last chapter that I read it years after seeing the movie and I couldn't tell you the first thing about it today, while I remember the film's ending perfectly.

Matthew Dessem said...

I wish someone would tell me what happens in that last chapter, though...

Anonymous said...

Picnic at Hanging Rock is based on the 1967 novel of the same name by the Australian author Joan Lindsay.
She claimed that the basic plot of the novel (and subsequent film) is a fictionalised version of a true. historic, but undocumented disappearance at Hanging Rock. Such an event did not, however, take place on Valentine´s Day 1900 as in the setting of the novel and film. It is not inconceivable that Joan Lindsay herself, directly or indirectly, did indeed experience something deeply unsettling in connection with Hanging Rock.

Matthew Dessem said...

Anonymous,

The old "Blair Witch" publicity plan...

Mark L said...

Trivial comment, but a "poisonous" snake is one you wouldn't want to eat. A "venomous" snake is one you wouldn't want to be bitten by.

Am enjoying your very intelligent series. I own probably a third of the collection and it's great fun to read your thoughtful comments and the reader responses.

Anonymous said...

I've seen Picnic At hanging Rock at least 3 times, and it is one of my best love films. The atmosphere and mood of the film is indescribable. I am concerned that if I were someone who have not seen the film, I would get a complete misreading of it from your review. It had never occurred to me that this is a horror film. It's dreamy (abundant use of the soft focus filter), slightly creepy, girl-centric, and beautiful.

John B. said...

There are a lot of similarities between this and Walkabout, the only other Australian film in the catalog thus far: an unhurried cadence, the enigmatic storytelling, beautiful cinematography, an unsettling tension between European settlers and their adopted land, between burgeoning sexuality and repressive mores. It is foolhardy to draw conclusions based on two examples, but questions may be raised, and so I wonder if these are hallmarks of Australian cinema? Does a nation place its stamp as inevitably on a film as an era or an individual writer or director?

I’m still four years behind you, Matthew, and I don’t seem to be catching up any more than you are outpacing Criterion’s output. But that isn’t really the point of this exercise. I do, however, peek ahead at your more recent essays. You describe the strong vertical lines separating Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows. I notice the same device emphasizing the class difference between Michael (the visiting Englishman) and Bertie (his family’s servant). A thick tree trunk separates them in their first scene together. Although they share a bottle in this scene, they carefully avoid crossing this vertical as they pass it back and forth. And in another scene together, they are never in frame simultaneously. I wouldn’t have noticed either without you…thanks.

Finally, my reaction to this film is more in line with the last anonymous comment you’ve received. For me this is dreamy and slightly creepy rather than horrific. The creepiest scene for me is when Irma, the rescued girl, now completely recovered, visits her classmates one last time before leaving school for good. No longer in virginal white but with upswept hair and sporting a flaming red hat and cloak (clearly something sexual transpired on that rock in spite of her intactness), she enters their dance class and is suddenly turned upon by her classmates. Grounded far more in reality than the disappearance, this is much scarier for me. Very Lord Of The Flies.

Captain Jimbo said...

I have visited Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia a couple of times and it is indeed a very creepy place. It is situated in the Macedon wine region of central Victoria. It is a beautiful looking place, yet it has a rather ominous vibe. I highly recommend taking a couple of joints along for the journey.
It truly makes for a heightened experience.