Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), directed by Peter Weir.


Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place.

-- Miranda

Australia, Valentine's Day, 1900. A girl's school where the curriculum is "how to be properly English". The first 35 minutes are slow like a picnic on a summer's day. We have a class outing to an intricate volcanic hill in the area. But hints of strangeness appear: the birds and horses are unsettled, the watches stop at noon. Zamfir's pan pipe score gives an eerie, dreamlike quality to the day. When several girls ascend the Rock we have a Lynchian bass undertone denoting magic at higher elevations. Hypnotically, three of them tie their shoes and stockings around their waists and (it seems to me) ascend to another plane out of sight.

Suppressed sexual tensions and subtle suggestive imagery? Oh, yes.

The girls and one of the teachers have vanished without trace. Intensive searching of the rock reveals no clues. After a week a young man obsessed with the mystery endures a magical ordeal on the Rock and soon one of the girls is recovered. She is suffering from exposure and loss of memory and is missing her shoes, stockings, and corset, but otherwise, as the doctor says, "is quite intact."

Since we are used to mystery stories we immediately try to solve it. Lost in a cave? Abduction? Sex crime? Runaways? Flying saucers? But then there comes a moment, as in Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), when we realize that the mystery is not going to be solved. We might hate this or we might love it because it seems to be the poignant essence of the Unexplained and Uncanny. As the school gardener says: "There's some questions got answers and some haven't."

Another plot line takes over: the school is struggling and the dragon lady headmistress begins to drink. We have hysteria in the town and among the girls, and eventually murder or suicide. In another sad bit, brother and sister orphans, separated for many years, live close to each other without ever knowing.

I think this is great filmmaking. Contrary to some rumors, the story is all fiction, not based on any real events.

Criterion DVD, 4:3 letterboxed. Subtitles, but no subtitle selection on the menu. Use the subtitle button on the remote.

Anamorphic PAL DVDs are available, although dvdcompare says "The R0 Criterion edition is the only release that presents The Director's Cut in 1.66:1". The others are apparently 1.78:1. Blu-ray imports are available, but I am hoping for a nice Criterion region A disc.

(Later: the Criterion Blu-ray appeared!)

The Director's Cut is about 7 minutes shorter than the theatrical release.