Analysis of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) by Peter Weir, based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Joan Lindsey.
Hanging Rock, literally “suspended rock”, is the central cusp of a hundred meters high that rises above a complex of huge menhirs with evocative names such as the Vampire, King Arthur, the Ufo, about seventy kilometers from Melbourne, Macedon County, Victoria State in Australia. Hanging Rock is a botryoidal cluster, geologically defined mamelon, formed by the solidification of a dense magma in the form of an effusive rock called trachyte. However, it is not just any trachyte but solvsbergite, with such particular chemistry and texture that it is scarcely widespread and only in a few places on Earth. As the magma of Hanging Rock cooled and contracted, it split into rough columns, made of this finely porous and rough trachyte that hides crystals of a very common white sodium feldspar, hence the name of Albite.
More rarely, the trachytic rock of Hanging Rock reveals crystals of a very rare variety of Albite, with a greyish color and which takes the name of Anortoclase, meaning its irregular and wild cleavage.
Hanging Rock’s sharp mamelons and triclinic crystals are millions of years old, an eternity that scales to a breath of Earth when compared to the nearly four and a half billion years of zircon sands of Jack Hills, Mid West Australia. only a few thousand kilometers away.
Only a million years ago. Quite a recent eruption really. The rocks all round – Mount Macedon itself – must be all of 350 million years old. Siliceous lava, forced up from deep down below. Soda trachytes extruded in a highly viscous state, building the steep sided mamelons we see in Hanging Rock. And quite young geologically speaking. Barely a million years. This is how Miss McCraw, the math teacher, describes to the girls of Appleyard College the bizarre natural wonder that will be the background to their version in Australian sauce of Breakfast on the Grass painted by Manet. Just as the painting aroused scandal and amazement, so will the girls’ picnic, ending with the tragic and inexplicable disappearance of four people, including Professor McCraw.
As with the painting, the first suspect for the disappearance is sex. Maybe a sexual violence against girls? This is what the police and public opinion initially think, and they may not be entirely wrong.
Director Peter Weir plays precisely on the voyeuristic aspect of the camera, sneaking in a deliberately ambiguous way into the intimacy of the girls, underlining their innocence as nymphs almost sprung from the surrounding pristine nature but at the same time insinuating doubt in the viewer. Something wild and seething moves beneath the earth’s crust of the aseptic and ruthless Victorian education in which they live every day and of which they begin to get rid of, like the socks, shoes and corsets that they leave behind during the ascent to the basalt rocks.
Despite the efforts of the director, sexuality has entered the girls’ lives on tiptoe, without affecting their ephebic exterior, and it is no coincidence that the French teacher Mademoiselle de Poitiers still sees Miranda, the girl with the most idealized beauty , like a Botticelli angel. However, it is not the same look with which her roommate Sara observes her, probably in love with her without being fully aware of it, or that of the young gentleman Michael who remains obsessed and disturbed.
The theme of lost innocence so dear to the time in which the film is set is painted here in such a literal way that it is innocent people who get lost: the girls would have been innocent for a little while longer, and it is perhaps precisely that typical desire of the artist to crystallize innocence and ideal beauty in a stolen moment to push that sort of mysterious entity at work among the mamelons to block time (the clocks have all mysteriously stopped) and forever prevent the inevitable corruption of adolescence . It is no coincidence that the only girls in the group to come back are first the still physically and sentimentally immature Edith, and then weeks later Irma who on the contrary is too earthly and mature as can be seen from the not exactly high-brow exchange between Michael and her servant Albert, who spies on the climbers from a distance just like the spectator. Irma will return from the time bubble that trapped her friends forever, but she will never return to boarding school. She will present herself to her companions unequivocally dressed as a woman, and they will react to this affront with mass hysteria in the gym scene, in which there will also be a quick horror excursus from the camera on poor Sara tortured in a gimmick for the correction of posture.
The girl is literally imprisoned by the ruthless rules of human society, which not only oppresses her with the greyness of the fees to be paid and the hierarchies to be respected, but has also condemned her to loneliness by dividing her forever from her lost brother Albert. Miranda and the poetry of which she is the muse are the only hope of beauty in this hostile geological environment, which is also nothing compared to the horror of the unknown, to the panic induced by nature that can mysteriously engulf anyone at any time. The echoes of the tale The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen are heard, in which a scientific experiment breaks that fragile barrier that divides the human world, so corrupt and immoral but still understandable, from the unknowable dimension that is Pan, the primeval nature in which sexual impulses and predatory violence mix in a chaos in which there are not logical contradictions, with all due respect to the cold and rational Miss McCraw, who in fact will be lost forever. Furthermore, the pan flute is not by chance the musical instrument that bursts most into the film’s soundtrack, alienating the viewer who begins to doubt the rationality of the events on the screen.
Many have correctly observed how Australian cinematography is often imbued with the subtle colonial anguish of civilized man who finds himself living in an uncontaminated environment dominated by an ancient and powerful nature like the basalts of Hanging Rock, to be tamed by injecting a little England under the skin. Emblematic of this alienating hybrid is the shot in which the moldy noble relatives of Michael drink tea and gobble cake on land that until the day before hosted who knows what ancestral shamanic rituals of the Aborigines, whose disappearance is really a tangible tragedy and not a literary artifice.
An interpretative key to the film can be found precisely in a concept typical of native Australian culture, as successful in popular culture as it is discussed at an academic level: the Dreamtime.
Probably due to translation and interpretation errors, this is how anthropologists called the age preceding that of men in which, according to the Aborigines, enormous spirits shaped the physical world with their actions, almost involuntarily for example by sitting or dancing . Every notable manifestation of nature, from the sun to a particular geological formation, is traced back to a myth of origin belonging to the Time of the Dream: the spirits operated as demiurges on a world that had hitherto been undifferentiated, with an ordering action that also infused rules of life human culture, so much so that the original term is also translated as law. Moreover, the Dream Time is actually out of time, also configuring itself as a parallel dimension to ours accessible to human beings through the dream, thanks to which they can obtain insights and teachings as well as the stories that will be handed down among the members of the same group.
The dream is the main stylistic code of the film: the direction and the editing try in every way to reproduce that sense of disorientation typical of the dream dimension, taking away from the characters on stage any possibility of orienting themselves, perennially enveloped by a cloud of postprandial sleep. In dreams, time is deformed in unpredictable ways just like in Hanging Rock, drowning reality in an illusion that is still familiar: in dreams like in Hanging Rock, you can get lost and never get out.