Picnic at Hanging Rock: What We See and What We Seem

<i>Picnic at Hanging Rock:</i> What We See and What We Seem

“There are, after all, things within our own minds about which we know far less than about disappearances at Hanging Rock.”

Peter Weir, Sight and Sound, 1976

The first thing we think about when we think about Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is likely its resolution, or lack thereof. In the first half hour, a mystery is set up—three schoolgirls and a teacher disappear on a sightseeing trip. We are given clues, or we feel as though we are, but ultimately none lead anywhere. We never learn their fate. At an industry screening of the film, Weir recalled in an interview, one distributor “threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end . . . because he’d wasted two hours of his life—a mystery without a solution!” Many viewers and critics shared in the frustration. “That’s Weir, as in weird,” People magazine noted snarkily, deeming the film “unsatisfying.”

Nearly forty years later, it is almost impossible to encounter Picnic without always already knowing about its supposed nonending, which, for many, may remove the possibility of frustration. That frustration, however—the unsettling, provocative sense of hidden truths withheld from us—is integral to the film itself, and one of its greatest powers.

Released in 1975, Picnic at Hanging Rock launched Weir’s career (after he had made ripples with The Cars That Ate Paris the previous year) and proved a defining force in what would come to be known as the Australian New Wave. He would soon go on to a Hollywood career including Witness (1985), The Mosquito Coast (1986), Dead Poets Society (1989), Fearless (1993), and The Truman Show (1998), all movies that, like Picnic, involve real or metaphorical journeys—journeys outward that become journeys inward. Tales that thrive on mystery and ambiguity. “I do love to walk away from a movie that keeps making itself in your mind,” Weir has said.

Picnic is faithfully adapted from Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same name, telling the story of a fateful St. Valentine’s Day in central Victoria in 1900. Four students from Appleyard College, Educational Establishment for Young Ladies—ethereal Miranda, beautiful Irma, whip-smart Marion, and pesky, whining Edith—depart from their classmates and teachers to penetrate more deeply the lush mysteries of Hanging Rock, a foreboding volcanic mass that, their headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard, warns them, is both a “geological marvel and . . . extremely dangerous.” Only Edith returns, gripped in a fit of screaming hysteria and unable to recall what has transpired. In the confusion, Miss McCraw, the middle-aged math teacher, vanishes as well. Several days later, Irma is found alive but remembers nothing of her experience. Miranda, Marion, and Miss McCraw are never seen again, and a series of torments and major and minor tragedies await nearly all involved.

From its beginning, Picnic is about watching, looking, about the gaze itself. The film opens with shots of the schoolgirls all peeping at one another, through mirrors, doorways, and we—through the camera’s voyeuristic intrusion into the girls’ toilettes, their private worlds—are peeping at them. In the repressive atmosphere of Appleyard, young female flesh is to be hidden, contained, and concealed. Only at Hanging Rock, unleashing, as it does, a mysterious eruptive energy, do the hats and gloves come off, are even the stockings unrolled. Irma, indeed, at some unspecified point, loses her corset; for Miss McCraw, only bloomers remain on last sighting. It’s a striptease. But one feels, too, from the opening shots of the landscape, a larger sense of someone else watching, Hanging Rock itself watching. A godlike gaze from above. The characters gaze up at it, but we also feel it gazing down at them, at us.

With its Victorian hothouse atmosphere and fetishism (from the gloves and stockings to the flowers the girls fondle to the fixation on corsets) and its focus on the burgeoning sexual curiosity of the girls (and the women), Picnic is deliciously ripe for Freudian (and Jungian) interpretation—and while the novel plays it cool, more interested in social mores and their unraveling, the movie is all heat. Weir focuses on the sensate, the pleasures and dangers made flesh, repeatedly using his camera to pull back every curtain, to lift every petticoat, to unfurl every corset. Reading the film this way, one can see the bolder girls, aroused by the pagan pleasures of passing valentines and, in far deeper registers, by the wildness and eruptive lore associated with Hanging Rock, as eager to pass through innocence and into adult sexuality. It is a great and perilous passage to a place that they long to go (others, like Edith, fear to go, are not equipped to go), but from which there can be no return. To make the journey, the film hints, one must need to leave behind the same-sex passions of adolescence: as Miranda gently warns her devoted roommate Sara, “You must learn to love someone apart from me, Sara. I won’t be here for very much longer.” While Sara later takes this warning as evidence of Miranda’s foreknowledge, it directly follows Miranda’s invitation to Sara to join her on a family visit one day, suggesting she doesn’t plan on literally leaving but on “leaving” the safety of their intense school friendship for something else, something that is never named—perhaps a kind of sublime. Eyes fixed on the rock, expression serene and ready, Miranda is ready.

If, for many of the girls, the rock seems to whisper, tantalizingly, of the secrets of sexuality, it is no less meaningful a symbol for the adult characters. It is telling that the “old maid” Miss McCraw asserts that the rock may seem old but is “quite young, geologically speaking,” and bears the promise of sexual release, with lava “forced up from deep down below.” Likewise, for the stern, scolding Mrs. Appleyard, the rock is male, phallic (the site of “venomous snakes”), and thus treacherous. For every snake and lizard on the rock, however, there are just as many signifiers of female sexuality in its crevices and caves (at one point, Miranda even mimics a lizard, popping out from within a crevice, mounting her classmate’s back). And the final moment we see the girls is their passage into the narrowest of orifices.

The rock refuses singular interpretation, and thus is open to all, to our own imaginative longings and fears. For those who might see it as a Lovecraftian horrorscape, Weir summons ominous music, employs shrieks and screams to heighten our fears, and even crosscuts between shots of the rock and slasher-movie images of a gleaming knife splitting a heart-shaped cake in two as part of the picnic tea. Similarly, for those who might see the rock as a symbol of “the colonized Other,” Weir repeatedly returns, both visually and through dialogue (“Where are they going? Without their shoes?”), to the idea that the girls are ascending, or descending, into a kind of primitivism, removing their garments and moving as though hypnotically lured into a place sacred, foreign, dangerous.

If the rock is the film’s most obvious blank canvas, it is Miranda who proves just as powerful a cipher. She is the object of the projections and fantasies of nearly all the characters, from Mademoiselle de Poitiers, who dubs her a Botticelli angel (though she’s perhaps more a Venus, which is the image the French mistress is looking at when the thought arises), to Michael, the lovesick young gentleman who, in true Victorian fashion, finds her more appealing as an unattainable (possibly dead) vision or symbol than as a full-blooded woman. As he daydreams impotently, gauzy, slow-motion shots of Miranda fade into a swan gracefully gliding across the water.

In this way, Picnic is a movie about the projection of desires (onto the rock, onto Miranda), at the same time that it encourages our projections—the film itself becomes our Miranda. Just as she abandons everyone, withholding answers, Picnic similarly resists a solution. Because it refuses to settle on a truth, an answer, a resolution, we, like its characters, are left trapped in our own fantasies, ones that we would perhaps rather not acknowledge. Which brings us back to that famous (non)ending.

At the start of the film, a voice, presumably Miranda’s, whispers a line from Poe: “What we see or what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream,” the first clause summing up beautifully the central tension of the film. The girls are seeing, are the voyeurs seeking to know the rock’s secrets. And, to the constellation of eyes peering at them (those of Mrs. Appleyard; Michael; the coachman, Albert; Dr. McKenzie, who examines the girls who return to determine whether they are “intact”), the girls seem, or appear, to be various things, various projections buried deep (or shallowly) in the viewer’s unconscious. In fact, the Poe lines are slightly misquoted. Miranda adds an extra dream, further multiplying the levels of unreality, of fantasy.

In his 1907 lecture “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” Freud writes that when we reach adulthood, we are told we must abandon childhood play, but the impulse for fantasy remains, and thus we substitute the more private act of daydreaming as a means of wish fulfillment. In our private thoughts, we indulge the wishes we repress in life, but the practice feels shameful. The power of fiction, Freud argues, is that it gives us an acceptable vehicle by which to indulge these hidden desires. The writer (or filmmaker) tacitly assures us that, however perverse and titillating the story we are enjoying is, we need feel no guilt because it is the creator’s fantasy, not ours, “enabling us . . . to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame.” Our unconscious wishes are dramatized, investing us in the story and allowing us an ecstatic release. But what happens if we are given no release?

In its first half hour, Picnic actively encourages a host of fantasies in its viewers, particularly the more forbidden. Many scholars have suggested that Weir is playing with a gauzy soft-core aesthetic, and that certainly seems the intent in opening shots such as the one of the garland of schoolgirls in their bloomers, each one bent over the next, tightening her corset. The tone of the first twenty minutes is at once giddy and languorous, edging toward a sexual frenzy of expectation. The jostling carriage ride, the girls’ laughter pitched high and nervous, the horses thundering them forward, gives way to sensual shots of the picnic—a girl fondling another’s hair, the sound of one reciting a love sonnet, images of flies nesting on the half-eaten, sumptuous cake. At the same time, viewers whose imaginative world veers closer to Gothic terrors, supernatural wonder, divine mysticism, or the imperialist unconscious are all given clues to ultimately support their fantasies that the girls have been, alternately, raped and murdered, abducted by aliens, whisked away by the “Aboriginal Other” à la colonial melodrama, or swept up in a holy rapture. But it’s a tease. The ending doesn’t deliver. Possibilities are closed off. There is no answer. And, returning to Freud, Weir (and author Joan Lindsay) has failed to keep up his end of the creative bargain. Just like the characters, we are refused release.

In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Irma, the “one who came back” but remembers nothing, is bidding goodbye to her classmates, her scarlet hat and cape seeming to mark her as one with erotic knowledge, one who has “passed over” and yet withholds the secret understanding they all seek as their own. She enters the school’s gym, where rows of girls in bloomers and thick stockings exercise listlessly. They are brought to violent, rabid life when they see Irma, clawing at her and crying out, “Tell us! Tell us, Irma! You know what happened! Tell us!” Fearing she will be torn to pieces, Mademoiselle de Poitiers—“recognizing the hyena call of hysteria,” Lindsay’s novel tells us—rescues Irma from their clutches. The scene operates as a kind of canny rehearsal for the reaction the film ultimately inspired in viewers: You know and you’re not telling me! The girls have been, since the disappearance, trapped in their own morbid or dirty or frightening scenarios of what has happened, filled with fear and envy and hunger. And now Irma is leaving without ever freeing them from their torment.

“Miranda knows lots of things other people don’t know,” Sara says after the disappearance. And that is how Picnic at Hanging Rock can come to feel to the viewer. Just as everyone in the film is tortured by the not knowing, so, too, is the audience. By not providing a “solution,” the film leaves us face-to-face with our own self-generated projections, our shameful fantasies. Any dark, unseemly, or erotic scenario we imagine in our heads, we must acknowledge as our own. The movie, the story, Miranda herself won’t take it back. It is ours, and we must claim it.

This piece was originally published in the Criterion Collection’s 2014 edition of
Picnic at Hanging Rock.

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