| Sophie Durbin |
Picnic At Hanging Rock plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, September 29th, through Sunday, October 1st. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.
I first learned about Picnic at Hanging Rock from the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (which I’ve been glued to for two years) and was instantly intrigued. I finally saw it yesterday after several failed attempts on Youtube.
On a visual level, the film takes the old “nature encroaching upon mankind” story to a whole new level. We see several shots of a beautiful St. Valentine’s Day cake being devoured by ants. Later, there is a similar series of still images of Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Edith napping amongst lizards, ants, and flies. A red light nearly consumes Edith as she runs screaming down the mountain. Peter Weir hints that whatever happened to the girls was something far more sinister and mysterious than a kidnapping, or even rape or murder (“I have examined her, and she is quite intact,” the doctor quietly tells the college staff of both Edith and Irma).
All around are images of beauty: the ethereal Miranda washing her face in a basin filled with flowers, Mademoiselle des Poitiers reading about Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and a swan swimming alone. The doctor describes Irma’s injuries in great detail— he speaks of torn and ragged fingernails and bad bruises on the head—but we never see them. The scene of the ants eating the cake is almost shocking, as it follows tableaux of the beautiful, delicate young girls lounging. Obviously, these different sorts of images provide contrast between the beauty and the beast that swallowed it. Is there anything more? I’ll have to think on it.
The above passage is from Tuesday, June 16, 2009, when I was 16 years old and obsessed with hiding in my room watching movies on an 8-inch screen TV while painting my toenails. I had a film blog where I wrote reviews similar to this one: purplish prose, more description than interpretation, with a few decent points tucked in. I remember the anticipation I felt for Peter Weir’s Picnic distinctly. It wasn’t just featured in my beloved 1001 Movies… book—it was having a moment in the delightful mid-00s fashion blogosphere. On a favorite message board, I saw screencaps that lured me into its iconic dreamlike world. My favorite images: an impeccably staged scene of young girls lounging in dappled afternoon light; a knife cutting through a heart-shaped cake. The film delivered on the hazy promise of these images, but there was one distinctive quality to Picnic that left me profoundly sad and unsettled. I had never encountered absence as such a paradoxically present theme in a film before. Looking back on my teenage thoughts, my question today is simple: does that original feeling of emptiness hold up? And what absence feels the most keen while watching it? Today, I realize I am most moved by how Weir depicts the repressed romantic dreams of the women and girls of Appleyard College.
I was led to this realization first by stepping back and reflecting on the significance of St. Valentine’s Day. In the opening scene, we are treated to a sequence of luxuriously romantic images of the Appleyard College girls getting ready for the day. The girls wash their faces in a basin filled with sweet-smelling flowers, stand in a line lacing each others’ corsets, and share cards from secret admirers with each other. It’s unclear who the cards are from, but Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel upon which the film was based stresses the lack of boys anywhere in the vicinity of the school, suggesting that the girls wrote them to each other. We hear the girls reading their Valentines in quivery, expectant voices.
Weir offers us a touching glimpse of the romantic friendship between Sara and Miranda. Sara is clearly enamored with Miranda; throughout the film we see her caressing her photo, calling out to her when she disappears, and possibly even writing poetry about her. When Miranda suggests that one day Sara should visit her family with her, Sara closes her eyes in a tiny moment of ecstasy and mouths something inaudible. But almost immediately, Miranda admits that this proposition is impossible. She tells Sara: “You must learn to love someone else, apart from me. I won’t be here much longer.” Strikingly, this is a gentle warning, not a rejection. She seems to know she will be leaving soon. (Throughout the film it is suggested that Miranda possesses a wisdom or knowledge beyond the other girls.)1
In search of the true meaning of Valentine’s Day, I wandered over to Wikipedia. Numerous conflicting hagiographies surround St. Valentine. One tradition surrounding the saint declares that he was martyred in ancient Rome for performing Christian weddings. His cult became associated with courtly love by the Renaissance. While one analysis I found considers courtly love throughout Picnic, the author focuses her attention on Michael’s fixation with Miranda.2 I would argue that Sara’s unfulfilled love for Miranda is also worthy of our consideration and serves as a parallel for Michael’s obsession throughout the film. It’s notable that heterosexual love in the film is no less futile than lesbian love: Michael, the wealthy visitor who pines over Miranda, is ultimately led almost to his demise on the rock, and Sara’s body is found near the end of the film.
Weir denies that any of the romantic tension within the girls’ school should be classified as true lesbian desire. I will beg Weir’s forgiveness, but I must disagree— I think that sublimated queer romance is a key feature of the film. Sara and Miranda are not the only ones implicated here. Just about everyone in the film is in love with Miranda, girls and faculty alike; consider how Mme. des Poitiers refers to her as “a Botticelli angel.” On my most recent viewing, I was moved by a quiet, easily missed sapphic reference. The headmistress laments Miss McCraw’s disappearance, and mentions that she had come to depend upon the missing teacher’s “masculine qualities.” The two women had some kind of partnership; perhaps it was strictly business. But the flicker of pain that crosses Rachel Roberts’s face at this moment read to me as a woman mourning something more.
In my teenage “review,” I managed to make the point that the film depicts the Australian outback as a place endowed with sinister power. I now see the ancient, spiritual forces within the landscape in deliberate opposition to the St. Valentine’s Day picnic, an explicitly Christian feast that frames the film. Because he must deny the audience a human villain to maintain the mystery, Weir turns the landscape into an antagonist. A low, rumbling earthquake sound can be heard in some shots of Picnic. In others, the camera gazes upon faces seemingly embedded in the stone. The idyllic shots of the girls and their picnic are heavily filtered (in one case, through an actual bridal veil); when we look at the rock faces, the camera is handheld and there is no filter, casting a harsh light on the scene. Before the girls are spirited away, they remove their stockings; later we hear that Miss McCraw was seen running up the rock in only her drawers. Here, simmering desires gestured at in the beginning Valentine’s Day scenes are finally realized only as the Appleyard College girls and women are led to their fate. In the 1001 Movies summary that originally captured my attention, the film is described as “a ghost story without the ghosts, a puzzle without a solution, and a story of sexual repression without the sex”.3 No dream is fulfilled, every human urge is stifled. And in the end, all we are left with is cruel loss without any explanation. This all-pervasive absence is, to me, what sets Picnic apart as a remarkable film.
1 During the pivotal scene on Hanging Rock, Miranda enigmatically tells the others: “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.” Later, when confronting the eventuality that Miranda may never return, Sara shares, “Miranda knows lots of things other people don’t know. Secrets. She knew she wouldn’t come back.”
2 Wild, Harriet. “Darling Miranda: Courtly Love in Picnic at Hanging Rock.” Studies in Australasian Cinema 8.2-3 (2014): 123–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/17503175.2014.960681.
3 Schneider, Steven Jay. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron’s, 2003.
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon