"Picnic at Hanging Rock" is a movie about a vexing mystery that cares not a whit about solving it. It's a dreamy contemplation of the power of the puzzle itself, rather than the humdrum mechanics of sorting out what piece fits where to assemble the picture on the box.
Instead, we stare at the scattered bits until we go cross-eyed, and form what image we will.
Peter Weir has always been among the first names I recall when someone asks me to list my favorite filmmakers. Along with a few others, he more or less launched the Australian New Wave. He's had a long career, though not a particularly busy one, at least in terms of number of films made, with only three in the last two decades.
But in qualitative terms he's over the moon, with at least a half-dozen works that will be -- or already are -- remembered as classics: "Witness," "The Truman Show," "Dead Poets Society," "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Gallipoli" and this one.
"Picnic," Weir's first movie to garner wide international attention, proudly eschewed the conventions of narrative storytelling and character development. The film relies on arresting visual imagery and an atypical soundscape to evoke themes and emotions, and lets the audience make their own sense of them.
I don't mind saying I usually tend not to favor this type of filmmaking. In a sense, Weir seemed to be working to out-Terrence Malick before Malick himself got too deep inside his own fever dream. But I found this movie highly engaging, and soon my persnickety critic's heart, always restless for a good yarn, settled into the film's rhythmic perambulations.
It concerns the disappearance in 1900 of several students and a teacher at a remote Australian girls' college. On a field trip to Hanging Rock, a famous volcanic formation once used by Aborigines for secret initiation rites, three young women climb up to its uppermost reaches and disappear. A teacher who goes in search of them also vanishes.
At first I thought the movie was based on an actual case. Weir presents it with such stark authenticity that, despite its dream-like quality, the story feels like something that really could have happened. But no, screenwriter Cliff Green based it on the novel by Joan Lindsay.
The notion of a field trip is intoxicating to the girls of Appleyard College because it represents such a departure from their daily lives, which consist of things like dancing, sewing and mathematics suitable for well-bred women to use when they becomes wives and mothers. They wear long dresses and tight corsets, stockings, boots and bonnets -- even white gloves, which the stern headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), advises they may remove owing to the sultry weather, but only after their carriage has cleared the neighboring town.
Three of the more outgoing, popular girls announce they would like to climb the rock's lower reaches to take some measurements. They are Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), blonde and stunning; Irma (Karen Robson), tall and dark; and Marion (Jane Vallis), bespectacled and serious. Tagging along is Edith (Christine Schuler), the black sheep of the class, owing to her dumpy physique and scratchy personality.
The rest of the group falls asleep in the hot sun, but the adventuresses enter a sort of mystical trance, removing their shoes and stockings so they can better commune with nature. Weir shoots this scene with almost fetishistic obsession, as young women who have spent their lives so cloistered and fettered that even this marginal unclothing somehow becomes shocking.
The trio wander off into a fissure, while a discombobulated Edith runs screaming down the mountain to report their actions. Math teacher Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) goes in search of them, though she seems to be in as much as a daze as they, and also is lost.
Weir wisely never attempts to explain the reason for their strange behavior, leaving it as part of the film's enduring enigma. There's some hint of supernatural and/or magnetic influences -- the watches of two adults stop abruptly at exactly noon.
But Weir is less concerned with explaining than seeing how people react to that which is unexplainable.
Searches are conducted, without success. After a week has gone by and even the police have given up, a young wealthy Englishman (Dominic Guard), who had observed the girls on their way up the hill and became smitten with Miranda, resolves to go in search of them with his manservant (John Jarratt) in tow. He spends the night alone on the mountain, and is rescued himself in a near state of catatonia, but clutches a scrap of cloth that leads to Irma.
Dehydrated but otherwise unharmed, Irma remembers nothing of the encounter. Throughout the process of her recovery there is a particular emphasis placed on whether Irma has been sexually violated -- though the doctor reassures the police and school officials that she is "quite intact." As if the status of her provable virginity is more important than the lives of the three people still missing (who are soon declared presumed dead).
In one of the film's most shocking scenes, a reconstituted Irma is presented to her classmates and is set upon them like a pack of dogs, demanding to know the whereabouts of Miranda and the others. Edith is the chief interrogator, perhaps in an effort to throw suspicion off herself.
The disappearances have a tragic effect on the entire college. Mrs. Appleyard learns that a number of girls are being pulled from the school after the current semester, making the financial viability of the enterprise quite perilous. Her frazzled state is reflected in her prim appearance becoming increasingly frayed, particularly an impressive vertical hairdo that starts to wilt like summer corn left too long unharvested.
Appleyard takes much of her frustration out on Sara (Margaret Nelson), an orphaned girl whose tuition is in arrears due to lack of payment by her guardian. She even threatens to have Sara returned to the institution where she suffered much.
Sara is the closest thing to a fully realized character in the movie, a waifish thing who seems to have no personality of her own but lives vicariously through others. She was especially entranced by Miranda -- possibly a sexual attraction, calling her "a Botticelli angel" -- and begins to come apart at the seams without her touchstone.
Jacki Weaver, best known on these shores for "Animal Kingdom," has a small role as a maid with an insider's view of the school's dissolution. Helen Morse also has a strong presence as an enlightened teacher who quietly resists the college's more dire curriculum, such as having Sara tied to a wall to correct her stooped posture.
The ending of "Picnic at Hanging Rock" is just as purposefully obtuse as the beginning. Mrs. Appleyard lies and claims that Sara has been taken away by her guardian, but the girl's body is found in the greenhouse the next morning, having fallen through from above.
Whether Sara was pushed or jumped to her death remains open to debate, though it should be noted the headmistress was already wearing a black mourning dress when a teacher burst into her office to deliver the awful news. A title card informs us Appleyard was later found dead at the base of Hanging Rock, in what was presumed to be an accidental fall.
The experience of watching "Picnic at Hanging Rock" is an unnerving one, and it's meant to be. This sort of movie doesn't really go places, but sits and spins, humming its own peculiar chant.
It's up to us to decide whether to be annoyed by that siren call, or close our eyes and become ensorceled.