Picnic at Hanging Rock
The sense of an ending
Every generation recasts the cultural canon, but the Boomers, with their socio-political firepower, blew it all up. From Monty Python to Spike Lee, from Prince to Wolf Hall, they scorned the old orthodoxies, rediscovered forgotten gems and created a whole canon. And then never stopped going on about it. But were their choices… ok?
Ok, Boomer: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
On Saturday 14th February 1900 a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mt. Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without a trace…
The title card to Picnic at Hanging Rock does an excellent job of setting up the premise of this most totemic mid-’70s piece of Australian New Wave cinema. Adapted from a late ‘60s novel, it was the second full-length film directed by Peter Weir, who went on to make Hollywood blockbusters Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989) and The Truman Show (1998). It was a sensation in Australia on its release, a critical success everywhere, and exactly the sort of film we watched over our parents’ shoulders, baffled, throughout the early ‘80s.
The web is full of blog posts about Picnic at Hanging Rock, and most of them mention two things: the dreamy visuals and - notoriously - its ending. Or rather, the absence of an ending. Picnic, famously, is a film that refuses to resolve itself. One of the missing women returns from the rock without an explanation, and we never find out what happened to the three others.
This infuriated some early, unaware viewers; Weir recounts a man at a screening who threw his coffee cup at the screen when the credits started rolling. But it also infuriates the characters. The women disappear, and then everyone gets more and more pissed off that the film they’re in is evidently not going to get an ending. The townspeople start barracking the local police; the main male character runs back to England; and the lone survivor is surrounded by furious classmates shouting: ‘You know what happened. Tell us!’
This elliptical noncommittal is a core part of the legend. It marks the film as being above such mundane pursuits as ‘plot’ and ‘entertainment’: it is Art, and as such is open to endless, delicious interpretation. Is it about young women, female sexuality, and agency in a class-bound patriarchal society? Is it about Empire? Is it about the doomed attempt to impose Home Counties etiquette on the wild Australian outback? (As Rachel Roberts’s sturdy headmistress puts it: ‘as the day is likely to be warm, you may remove your gloves once the drag has passed through Woodend.’) It is about the end of the ‘60s psychedelic adventure and the passing of the Flower Children? The film refuses to tell us how to read it. And so we can read it any way we like.
And then there are those visuals. Art should be aesthetically pleasing, or at least aesthetically interesting, and the film is both. Weir eschews modish editing and psychedelic effects for long, exquisitely composed frames that gradually build an intoxicating atmosphere, sedate and seductive. It is a collage of image, sound and impression; a decoupage, like the ones the girls make in their bedrooms.
It is not for nothing that the camera lingers over a print of Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June in the headmistress’s office. The film conjures the limpid sensuousness and mysticism of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, beyond the rational bounds of Classicism. Other frames reminded us of Manet and Gauguin, but in fact Weir was referencing the Australian Impressionists, which sound (to Old Country ears, at least) like a Peter Cook joke but were in fact a real thing.
Subscribe to The Metropolitan for a journey somewhere odd every Saturday morning, although hopefully you shan’t disappear never to be seen again.
Picnic At Hanging Rock inevitably feels very much of its time, but that’s not the same thing as saying it has aged badly. It is just indelibly timestamped, in part because it is so admirably committed to the bit. The British ‘60s cultural boom had a bright Australian substrain, full of intellectually fearless creators: Richard Neville (Oz magazine founder), Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes. In Picnic, Australia - its creative citizens, and the geography itself - rises up and devours its colonisers.
In its atmosphere of folk horror and the reassertion of the implacable forces of nature, it is very mid-’70s indeed (see 1973’s The Wicker Man). The Rock is an active character in the film, personified in pareidolic crags and a deep bass rumble on the soundtrack. It becomes a threatening, alien presence, like the Venice of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (also 1973).
If you’re playing the interpretation game (and what else is there to do with Picnic at Hanging Rock?), another gambit is that it’s about the comedown from psychedelia and the awful realisation that the doors of perception open onto the inside of your own head. (As a meditation on the end - or lack of it - of the ‘60s, it also feels of a piece with another Roeg film, The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976).) The characters can be divided into those who are looking for transcendence - whether via poetry, philosophy, sex or wild nature - and those who have given up on it, or were never interested in the first place. All of the characters who become bewitched by the Rock are searching for answers beyond the mundane, including the maths teacher who was engrossed in her geometry textbook before heading up the Rock in her bloomers. It’s also shot through with glimmers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (a key psychedelic text): see the flourishing of pocket watches and the disappearances of schoolgirls down holes.
Is it OK?
One way in which Picnic feels extraordinarily contemporary is in the young women’s costumes and their blank, affectless acting. The girls are forever plaiting each others’ hair and stroking each others’ heads while talking tonelessly about love; the disappearances happen on February 14, after a high-pitched cabbalistic ceremony in honour of St Valentine. The young girls wear white; the older, sexually experienced women wear dark colours. The young girls have long hair with precise centre partings; they sport no-makeup-makeup, all perfect skin, clean eyes and moist neutral lips; they wear modest dresses, with tiers and high necks and yards and yards of broderie anglaise. All of these could come straight from a summer 2023 look-book or a Wet Leg promo image, and the consensus among fashion historians is that we owe all of it to Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Its archetype of sly, inscrutable, youthful female sexuality, visually and emotionally balanced between innocence and self-consciousness, has been profound and astonishingly long-lived. And it plays into a nasty sweet spot: the requirement that attractive young women should be self-aware, but ego-free; virginal, but full of ancient wisdom; perceptive, but silent; mere days past pubescence, but down to fuck.
If we are to credit Weir with the pieces of genius in this film, we can’t entirely absolve him of this nastiness - although we should, in fairness, note that these themes were established in the original book, which was written by a woman. The only truly bum note in the film concerns the ‘fat’ girl, whose weight is explicitly tied to her dreary character and lack of adventurousness. The fat girl doesn’t want transcendence; she does not want to explore the rock cock, and the rock cock doesn’t want her galumphing about on it either. Given what happens to her more eager schoolmates, perhaps the whole film is a sly argument for celibacy and cream cakes. (If a director makes an art film without an ending and invites you to interpret it, what’s to stop you choosing pleasing interpretations, even if you know they’re wrong?)
It’s literally illegal to write a piece about Picnic at Hanging Rock without discussing its relationship to the films of Sofia Coppola. It is most obviously related to The Virgin Suicides (1999), Coppola’s film - again adapted from a novel - about a family of pubescent girls who are held a little too closely by their parents, and whose attempts to break free end in devastation. The sisters in Suicides share the calm, affectless style of the schoolgirls in Picnic; they also share their Brady Bunch hair and modest clothing, their penchant for mutual hair-touching, and an inscrutable sub-verbal communication that feels as though it is deliberately exclusive. It reminded us of a small bit in Wolf Hall, in which Cromwell’s young nieces are introduced to an even younger family member:
His nieces, two good little girls, still clutch their rosary beads. Ignored, as the people talk over their heads, they lean against the wall, and flick their eyes at each other. Slowly, they slide down the wall, straight-backed, till they are the height of two-year-olds, and balancing on their heels. ‘Alice! Johane!’ someone snaps; slowly they rise, solemn-faced, to their proper heights. Grace approaches them; silently they trap her, take off her cap, shake out her blonde hair and begin to plait it.
Note the repetition of ‘silent’ here: Mantel didn’t repeat words through carelessness. Society wants to look at girls, but it doesn’t want to hear from them. As with Picnic, you are never sure whether or not the sisters in The Virgin Suicides are mocking you, or whether they’re just ethereally unaware that they are driving you nuts. But Mantel, as ever, captured the nub of the problem. Young girls, en masse, don’t deliberately resist interpretation; it’s just that - sexuality aside - society is fundamentally uninterested in them, and does not want to understand what they’re feeling.
In Picnic, the girls are a mystery to Weir - a mystery he chose to summon - and so to the viewer; in The Virgin Suicides, Coppola is inside the sisters’ magic circle, trying to show you what it’s like. The sisters are characters, not symbols. When Kirsten Dunst’s Lux loses her virginity to a dumb lunk on a football field and is left to walk home alone, Coppola conveys every aspect of her experience, from excitement to disappointment to sadness. Despite her moist, youthful fruitiness, Lux is not a cipher; she is a person.
It’s important, here, to record the legend that Weir cast several of his young women actors for their looks alone; their voices had to be dubbed by more skilled actors in post-production. (Some of the performances in Picnic - and not only those of the young women - are epically dreadful.) Coppola absolutely casts young women actors for their looks; she has worked repeatedly with Dunst, Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning, among others. But you’d better believe her young women actors are bloody good at acting too. Weir is not remotely interested in his young women’s characters; Coppola is more interested in them than she is in anything else.
But still: the art of it. Just as the characters try to escape from convention, so does Picnic at Hanging Rock. In not having a conventional ending, in exceeding its ending and never resolving it, it opens a space for our own engagement and involvement. It is stylish and provoking, and still intriguing.
Also, you will stare for a while at the face of the actor playing the maths teacher (Vivean Gray) and grope distractedly in your memory before you shout at the screen: it’s Mrs Mangel! Out of Neighbours! You’ve had the experience of watching Mike-from-Neighbours (Guy Pearce) develop into a serious movie actor; in Picnic you get to see the same process happening in reverse. Which is all very satisfying, when you’re discussing Australian cultural behemoths that refuse to have endings.
Speaking of Sofia Coppola, we’re still trying to make ‘Macaron timeclash’ happen: