Horror need not always be a long-fanged gentleman in evening clothes or a dismembered corpse or a doctor who keeps a brain in his gold fish bowl. It may be a warm sunny day, the innocence of girlhood and hints of unexplored sexuality that combine to produce a euphoria so intense it becomes transporting, a state beyond life or death. Such horror is unspeakable not because it is gruesome but because it remains outside the realm of things that can be easily defined or explained in conventional ways.
It’s also the fascination of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the Australian film directed by Peter Weir, who was introduced to American audiences [in 1978] by his moodily impressive The Last Wave.
Picnic at Hanging Rock . . . is about three virginal young women and a school mistress who, on Valentines Day, 1900, disappear without a trace while on an expedition to a splendid geological outcropping called Hanging Rock. The movie would like us to believe it’s based on fact though it’s really based on a novel by Joan Lindsay. Whatever the origins the story provides Mr. Weir with material for a kind of Australian horror-romance that recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preoccupation with the spiritual and moral heritage of his own New England landscape.
In The Last Wave Mr. Weir made what seemed to me to be the grave mistake of attempting to provide answers for the mysteries he so beautifully set up earlier in the film. Picnic at Hanging Rock is different. It’s a movie composed almost entirely of clues. Its methods are illusory, not necessarily to trick us but to force us to stretch our imaginations. Instead of exposition, Mr. Weir and his screen writer, Cliff Green, deal in moods.
The opening section of the film, in which we are introduced to the students at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for young women, dramatizes their innocence with such intensity that we are immediately aware of sexual longings everywhere: students for students, students for school mistress, school mistress for someone unknown, even the maid for the gardener. Exchanged with high giggles are Valentines that pledge eternal love. Quite arbitrarily one of the girls is prevented from going on the picnic. Why? The only explanation is that the head mistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), is a monster. Another girl, carried away by her anticipation of the glorious day and by her own intimations of immorality, remembers Poe’s lines, “All that we see or seem/is but a dream within a dream.”
The heat of the day is as much of a presence during the picnic as the rock formation that provides shadow for the group. Mr. Weir makes us believe that the landscape is alive. When four of the girls set off to explore the rock, ignoring warnings of venomous snakes and poisonous ants, we have the impression that they are being called. As they climb higher and higher into the volcanic outcropping, one girl, the chubby one named Edith, panics and runs screaming back to the base. For some unexplained reason, the dry, spinsterish teacher of geometry decides to follow the three who are climbing the rock. Later, after the disappearance of the group has been confirmed, a witness reports having seen the teacher at some distance, running across a plateau, in her pantaloons.
I can’t tell you how the story is resolved, though some people will feel cheated. That, however, will be to have anticipated a different movie. I’m not sure that Mr. Weir has succeeded in evoking his “dream within a dream” world without using one or two more red herrings than are absolutely necessary, but because the film has a hypnotic spell I accept its excesses.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is very nicely cast, beginning with Rachel Roberts and including Anne Lambert as Miranda, the beautiful girl who leads her classmates into oblivion; Karen Robson as Irma, the one member of the expedition who survives but remembers nothing; Dominic Guard as a young man who shares Irma’s forgotten secret; and Christine Schuler as the chubby girl who complains when she’s included in a plan and complains even more when she’s left out.
Though Picnic at Hanging Rock has immense feeling for an interest in the Australian landscape, it is anything but a picturesque or provincial film. Among other things it knows that there are some romantic longings, especially in the young, that are so overwhelming they simply cannot be contained. The result is a movie that is both spooky and sexy.
Copyright ©1979 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.