This film is certain to yield many varied interpretations, primarily because it doesn't give any answers. A class of girls from a bourgouisse Victorian school take a day trip to Hanging Rock - a large rock formation oddly shaped by volcanic activity in the Australian countryside. At the base of the rock they idle about in the forestry, before a group of four wander off alone, climbing to the peak. Only one comes back, and what's more, one of the staff members, who ran off on her own, also disappears. The search for the missing is taken up by the police, along with two men who were present at the time of the disappearance - one upright English upper class, the other Aussie working class, with their vernacular completely at odds with each other. The girls can not be found, and while the search continues, we spend time learning the backstories of various other characters inside the school - from the headmistress, to the pupils, to the gardeners and the maid. The unsolved disappearance shrouds each male character a suspect, and every single character a great mystery that might reveal an important piece of the puzzle, despite seemingly being caught up in their own unrelated troubles, such as money to pay the school fees and poetry recitals. The first half of the film is youths romantic allure, a teenage girls optimism. The second half is a discovery of the pain residing underneath the perfectly manicured surface, with the journey into the rock a symbolic representation of passing from one to the other - a child to adult. The great anticlimax however, is that the case remains unsolved.
As it is not based on a true story, this irresolution is not an unfortunate by-product of real life events, rather a purposeful artistic decision by the writer, and it becomes clear we were watching not a detective story, but an art film posing as one. The use of the former genre's mystery and intrigue to keep us interested is successful, but by the closing credits feels like a hoodwink, and is all much ado about nothing. The ambiguity is on purpose, the director has suggested as much, but it is also purposefully misleading. The clues we are given to follow the crime - clocks stopping at 12, scratch marks on hands yet not body - are simply red herrings. Not even Sherlock Holmes could unwind it, because there is nothing to unwind. The clues were never intended to lead answers, and instead simply serve as narrative tools to take us from A to B. The journey we make is under false pretences.
If we are to take a figurative rather than literal interpretation of this film, we can find meaning in the symbolism used. Based on a novel, the author Joan Lindsay was an artist before she was a writer, and from the framing of shots to the constant symbolism, this film is reminisce of an old oil painting in motion. The three girls who are lost to the rock are seen removing their shoes and stockings moments before their disappearance, while the missing teacher was last seen in her underwear - shoeless. Meanwhile, the only girl to come back from the rock did not remove her shoes or stockings. In artwork, the removal of shoes was commonly symbolic for sexuality - the undressing - which is as sure a sign as any that their disappearance is metaphoric for the loss of virginity. The somewhat phallic looking rock becomes the representation of man, and set on Valentines Day, the film depicts the dangers women face when wandering into this wild new territory, and leaving their protected innocence behind. For the older staff member, who had previously described volcanic eruption as though male ejaculation, it may represent a lifetime of repressed sexuality, as others have commented.
One might point to other themes represented here, as proposed in this review section, and a story that leaves its meaning up to abstract figurative interpretation is bound to do just that. It could be all or none of those things, and symbolism does not necessarily mean profundity. Perhaps moreso than any other film I've watched, this one becomes whatever the audience makes of it, so its no wonder there is such a wide variety of reactions!
Where it unreservedly succeeds however is in the emotional matters. It is beautiful to look at, from the casting to the costumes, and the juxtaposition of those characters and costumes against the bright Australian bushland. The old masterwork paintings are some of the most terrific images created, and not enough films share their influence. It also sounds terrific, with the constant and varied bird chatter, to the foreboding ticking of clocks, classical music, and a haunting otherworldly pan flute. The camera movement is at times languid, ebbing and flowing between characters and their surroundings, soaking up the atmosphere. The net result is a dreamy impressionism, albeit with an ever present creepiness under the surface. It is the epitome of the 70's. All hazy images, dreamy vibes, mythic, nature based philosophy, that was just as likely (or more) to have stemmed from the herb than the library. It is a very complex and indirect way for one to express themselves.
If Picnic at Hanging Rock proves anything, it is the power of mystery. It may frustrate the heck out of our rational minds, yet leaves an enchanting impression. Finding it better to watch than to think about afterwards, to me it is a picnic that tastes wonderful, but does not fill the stomach.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Action / Drama / Mystery / Romance
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Action / Drama / Mystery / Romance
Three students and a school teacher disappear on an excursion to Hanging Rock, in Victoria, on Valentine's Day, 1900. Widely (and incorrectly) regarded as being based on a true story, the movie follows those that disappeared, and those that stayed behind, but it delights in the asking of questions, not the answering of them.
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