“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock is in a world of its own. It seems to exist outside the plane of regular cinema. Not better or worse, but different. It seems to share a world with its sister film The Virgin Suicides, another film about death and femininity. These films are lulling, sexually charged death traps shrouded in beauty. Whatever planet these movies come from, I wouldn’t plan on visiting any time soon, for it seems so easy to get lost in it all and lose your head.
A strict girls school takes a field trip to the geological wonder of Hanging Rock for a picnic. Once there, something compels a small group of the girls to take a walk into the woods from which they do not return. We learn about the young women that stayed behind, the women who run the school, and very little about the women who went missing among the rocks and deadly creatures of the forest.
My clearest observation was how director Peter Weir masters world-building in this puzzling film. He supposedly placed a piece of bridal veil in front of the camera to create the mystical shots of the picnic. Perhaps the bridal veil was symbolically, perhaps it was practical, but it’s a great story. It fits with the broader themes of femininity. Men are placed strategically throughout the film to complement the depiction of the female experience. Sex is a driving factor, though not often named, as the film takes a subtler, visual approach to its storytelling. To the chagrin of early audiences, Picnic at Hanging Rock is more about what’s currently on the screen than what anyone says or does. It feels almost like a gallery of paintings, telling a loose story that you can’t quite articulate but feels complete nonetheless.
The performances are strange in a way that works to the film’s favor. Many of the women, particularly smaller roles, were dubbed over. There’s something not quite right about the viewing experience, and it’s little details like this that enhance the uncertainty of the ensemble. It feels like the camera is doing the heavy lifting, and the women work to lull and disorient the viewer with their charms, anxieties, and tragedy.
I love movies that I can’t understand. The plot is deliberately unsatisfying, but the construction of the movie is similar. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery in just about every way, and it buzzes in my mind like a fly that you just can’t seem to swat. There’s no box in which to file away this movie. The film is slow and challenging, but I see myself returning to its mysteries again one day. It leaves an aching feeling that you and the film have unfinished business, and that’s rare and awesome.
Films Left to Watch: 825