Picnic at Hanging Rock – The Director’s Cut (1975)

(sits back, pondering) “Hmmm…ok, Movie…I’m not quite sure how I feel about you right now.” This was another supposed genre title out of Australia that I stumbled across in one of the hundreds of film-related articles I’ve read in the last couple years. I seem to recall ‘favorable mention’…but I honestly couldn’t tell ya what the specifics were. So, I’ve had this one in my line-up for a little while now, and twice before this rainy, grey Sunday afternoon, I’d fired it up and become intrigued by what I was seeing, but was somehow side-tracked and unable to finish. It’s a strange one, with a haunting, dream-like atmosphere among loads of symbolism and lesbian undertones.
Taking place in Australia, circa 1900, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ introduces us to a number of female students at a well-to-do finishing school. During a field trip to a nearby lava-based mountain location of dangerous repute, 3 of the girls and a teacher, under mysterious circumstances, vanish while exploring the upper heights of the intimidating rock formation. What then follows, is the bizarre psychological effect that this incident has on all affected by it, in particular, a young and rich English transplant named ‘Michael’ (Michael Fitzhubert) who, after an encounter with the missing girls just prior their disappearance, dedicates himself to finding them, wherever they may be on the mountain. Eventually, at great danger to himself, he finds one of them; barely conscious and amnesiac. But there is still no sign of the others and SOMETHING has left ‘Michael’ borderline catatonic. There’s also a subplot involving a possibly lesbian but definitely co-dependent relationship between two girls, the angelic ‘it’ girl ‘Miranda’ (Anne-Louise Lambert) and withdrawn but defiant ‘Sara’ (Margaret Nelson). It’s not terribly subtle.
Starting with the ‘good’, this movie is gorgeously shot. The cinematography is of that wide-angled, zoom-lens, ‘3 depths of field’ ‘Ridley Scott’ style that I love. There’s some beautifully composed shots here, and the longer takes and edits give the film a ‘patient’ pacing…that doesn’t always work in its favor. Sometimes these beautiful shots linger just a bit TOO long.
The Music is interesting, with some weird and prominent use of Zamfir and his pan flute, with someone laying it on a little thick with the ‘funeral dirge’ button on the keyboard, in the background. At times, I was strongly reminded of the music of Ennio Moriconne from the gangster classic ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984), with the prominent inclusion of the flute, while the synth tones had me thinking acutely of Phillip Glass and the epic score he composed for ‘Candyman’ (1992).
The music went a long way in helping establish the unsettling, dream-like atmosphere that dominates this story, but there were, at least, two key scenes where they just cranked the tunes; this big, ‘building’ crescendo of eerie tones that actually helped to remove the tension that would’ve been PERFECTLY preserved if only the sounds of Nature had been used. It became distracting, to be honest. The same could also be said for the Extreme Low End bass rumble that permeated many scenes around the mountain. It bolstered the creepy tone but it also ‘suggested’…something, that never pays off.
There was also a strange, creepy vibe ‘under’ the story, especially where the portrayals of the missing girls were concerned, especially ‘Miranda’. The camera just LOVED her, and we are treated to a noticeable number of contemplative slo-mo shots or close-ups of the apparent darling of the group; the “Boticelli Angel”, as one of the teachers strangely remarks. It seemed as though ‘Miranda’ was this ‘forbidden fruit’ object of desire of near ‘Lolita’ proportions, on one level or another, for just about anyone she encountered. She seemed to cast a spell on everyone…and it was a little off-putting, as these girls are meant to be in their mid-teens. Added to which, numerous shots and scenarios also lent heavily to an implied (or not so implied) lesbian vibe (the amorous poetry, the ‘corset tying’ scene etc). Couple this with the symbol-heavy and contemplative tone, and it all adds up to a slightly ‘perversion masquerading as art’ flavor.
The major problem with this movie is the needlessly open-ended script and the lack of coherent answers in an edit that really could’ve benefited from a ‘tightening’. The narrative meanders and the connections between the characters feel too loose to be effective when the dynamic shows change after the disappearance. There’s a lot of attention given to the stuffy Victorian Era trappings these prospective ‘Ladies’ must endure in this ‘school’ and I found it admirable, but it all would’ve worked so much better if I was made to fully see how and why certain key characters related to one another. Antagonist behaviour with no cause. Girl on Girl fawning with no explanation why. Aristocrat and Hired Help form out-of-the-blue ‘bromance’ that instantly takes on an ‘I’ll die for you’ vibe, for some reason. Again, the ‘just cuz’ interpersonal connections left the story ‘cold’…at least, for me.
All in all, I admire what director Peter Weir (‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World’) was going for, and in several respects, he succeeded in creating a hallucinatory and haunting story…that unfortunately becomes an exercise in ‘style over substance’ by the time the final credits roll. The ‘look’ of the film is beautiful and many of the performances are well-suited for the tone, but in the end, I had some trouble understanding the overall point of the story. Some audience members may find it to be a frustrating slog to sit through, but others may find it to be a fascinatingly crafted film that was, on a technical level, ahead of it’s time. I can’t give a specific recommendation either way…you MAY get something deep and poignant out of this…or you may be bored to shit. It depends on you and your taste in movies, really.

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