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Picnic at Hanging Rock (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on July 6, 2014

[Note: this review will discuss things that happen — or may happen — in the film.  If you are sensitive about spoilers, consider yourself warned.]

It has been over 9 years since I last watched this film.  Not out of lack of interest, but because I had long been waiting for Criterion to re-release it on Blu-Ray (another movie in my top 100, Pather Panchali, is in the same situation).  It was rumored at least as long ago as 2009, when an Amazon poll determined a future Criterion Blu-Ray (Howard’s End won that one… we’re still waiting for another one of the poll options, Kwaidan).  I could have rewatched the DVD presentation, of course, but I figured if a better release was around the corner, I might as well hold off.  At long last, the Blu-Ray is here and I sat down to watch this gorgeous picture in high-def glory.

And gorgeous it is.  Sumptuously photographed to capture that hazy, oppressive Australian summer, the wild mystery of the Rock, the period detail of the interiors.  Peter Weir uses slo-mo and superimpositions and edits (not to mention brilliant sound design and use of music) to build the themes with cinematic language, to create connections and juxtapositions, to heighten the sense of the unknowable.  And you can’t talk about Picnic at Hanging Rock without talking about the unknowable.  As Mr. Whitehead the gardener says, “There’s some questions got answers and some haven’t.”

The lack of answers will frustrate many viewers.  The same way that Irma’s fellow students descend upon her, demanding explanation, the audience may want to throttle Weir (and/or author Joan Lindsay) until they cough up the secrets.  I myself — and I don’t think this makes me any “better” (or worse) as a filmgoer — love a mystery that has no apparent solution.  Maybe because it lets me off the hook… I don’t have to start picking apart the clues and subtle hints and obscured meanings to find the “right” interpretation.  Against my better judgment, I have read the Wikipedia entry about the excised final chapter of the novel… fortunately, it doesn’t entirely spell everything out, but still I wish I hadn’t.  In my mind I must keep the knowledge of this chapter suppressed so that I am free to enjoy the mystery of it.

My own theory is hardly etched in stone and I like tossing around other ideas.  But to me the disappearance — and the significance of many of the things that happen afterward — is about the incongruity of these repressed girls, forced to stuff themselves into corsets and hide any sign of wildness (or heaven forbid, sexuality), in the midst of untamed nature.  They are an intrusion, they don’t belong, and nature will claim its prize as penalty.  Although I haven’t quite put that right, because that suggests an aggressive action.  I think the girls and Miss McCraw go willingly, serenely, or even eagerly… perhaps not conscious of what they’re doing, but acting on a dormant instinct that was always a part of them, drawn by a force that has no other expression.  The social repression gives them no other outlet.  It’s worth nothing that this depiction of 1900 with its corsets and layers and gloves was produced in 1975, the era of “burn the bra” feminist liberation.

The really brilliant stroke of the story is to bring Irma back.  What a way to fuck with all the speculation!  What does it mean?  I don’t particularly care much how my personal theory holds water, but how do I fit Irma’s return into it?  Was she rejected by “nature”?  Did she claw her way back, finding life on the other side (or whatever) unsuitable to her true self?  I don’t know.  It’s unknowable.  Or least I like to think it is, because then I can’t be wrong.

As always with my top 100 movies, I find myself reevaluating its position on that list.  The one minor problem I have with the movie is Edith.  I hate that the fat child is the whiny, obnoxious one.  I find that annoying and cheap.  But on a grander scale, I do have to admit that the film doesn’t have a lot of emotional resonance to me.  I think it’s beautiful, masterful and endlessly fascinating, but it doesn’t stir anything in my guts.  Later this summer I will be revising my list, and I’m looking to shake it up a bit.  Whether or not Picnic at Hanging Rock will remain is undecided as yet, but regardless I obviously think very highly of it.  Rating: Great (95)


3 Responses to “Picnic at Hanging Rock (rewatch)”

  1. Dan Heaton said

    This is such a mesmerizing film. It’s also really frustrating, but I’m glad that I saw it. It’s been a while since I checked it out, so I”m curious about how my reaction would change. Part of me wants to learn more, and another side loves the mystery.

  2. […] 160. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, Peter Weir) […]

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