Movie Discussion: Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

  • Monthly Theme: Ozploitationpicnic_at_hanging_rock_ver1_xlg
  • The Film: Picnic at Hanging Rock
  • Country of origin: Australia
  • Date of Australian release: August 8, 1975
  • Date of U.S. release: February 2, 1979
  • Studio: The Australian Film Commission, et al.
  • Distributer: Atlantic Releasing Corporation
  • Domestic Gross: $85,000
  • Budget: $440,000 (estimated)
  • Director: Peter Weir
  • Producers: A. John Graves, et al.
  • Screenwriter: Cliff Green
  • Adaptation? Yes, from the 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.
  • Cinematographer: Russell Boyd
  • Make-Up/FX: David Copping
  • Music: Bruce Smeaton
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Australian horror star John Jarratt (Wolf Creek, Dark Age, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Yes. Australian character actress Jacki Weaver.
  • Awards?: Best Cinematography at the 1977 BAFTAs and the 1979 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Awgie Award at the 1976 Australian Writers’ Guild. The Golden Charybdis at the 1976 Taormina International Film Festival.
  • Tagline: “On St. Valentine’s Day in 1900 a party of schoolgirls set out to picnic at Hanging Rock. …Some were never to return.”
  • The Lowdown: This week we tackle a metaphysical mystery film about a group of schoolgirls in 1900s Australia who go for a Valentine’s Day picnic at the local landmark Hanging Rock, a volcanic protrusion in the landscape, but several of them vanish into the wilderness, never to be seen again. The film focuses on the events leading up to the disappearance and the affects it has on those left behind. It also, famously, leaves the mystery of the girls’ fate unresolved. This was Peter Weir’s second feature (after 1974’s The Cars That Ate Paris) and it put him on the international map – and also helped to legitimize Australia’s national cinema in the eyes of the rest of the world. The film has gone on to legendary status, considered to be one of world cinema’s classic films and perhaps the great masterwork of Australian cinema.

If you haven’t seen Picnic at Hanging Rock our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Kristine: So, I was just interviewing my boyfriend on the two months he spent camping and being a dirt-bike-racing redneck in inner Australia circa 1990. His Oz trip relates to our cinematic travels in some ways. He went when he was in his mid-20s. He stayed with an American friend of his whose parents lived there – the dad worked in some kind of electronics industry that has an HQ there. He thinks they did big military contracts but is not totally sure on that. Anyway, the town was Alice Springs, which is an interesting place, especially in light of things we have been discussing. It’s unusual because it is one of the only inhabited inland towns. When he was there, the population was something like 30,000 people, and that made it like the second largest non-coastal town in Australia. It is surrounded by nothing, which made it ideal for their interests – racing motorcycles and dirtbikes. I asked him if they were being rednecks and revving up their bikes and hollering “yee haw” and throwing beer cans over their shoulders and destroying ancient lands while the Aborigines shook their heads sadly, and he said, “Basically.” Then he amended his statement to say that they didn’t litter.

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Leelee and friends

Sean: Hmmm… Interesting. 

Kristine: Oh, and Alice Springs is the lesbian capital of Australia.

Sean: Oh boy.

Kristine: He said you feel very miniscule there, surrounded by all that outback, and that Western people aren’t used to feeling miniscule. But he is a country boy from Texas, so he is more used to that then most Americans/Western Europeans. He said the attitudes of the folks there were very much in line with Texans. That’s about it. 

Sean: Would he go back? 

Kristine: Yes. He really liked it. They spent a month just in Alice Springs, then took the bus to some coastal towns and hung out another 2-to-3 weeks doing that. 

Sean: Wolf Creek 3: The Boyfriend’s Return.

Kristine: I know. 

Sean: Hahahaha.

Kristine: Okay, I need to talk about John Jarratt, a.k.a. the actor who played Mick in Wolf Creek, and who plays the valet, Albert, in this movie. 

Sean: Ok, shoot.

Kristine: Okay. In retrospect, I am glad you didn’t tell me who the actor was. It would have definitely changed things for me. 

Sean: I know, right? Plus, I was super curious if you’d recognize him on your own. 

Kristine: Especially because I noted some connections between Picnic at Hanging Rock and Wolf Creek without knowing about the big casting connection. And because now I have to deal with the fact that I found the young Mick to be sexy and handsome. It is stomach-churning, but it is real.

Sean: He was a total hottie. It is a fact. There are some very significant Picnic at Hanging Rock/Wolf Creek connections. I am pretty sure Wolf Creek references the movie on purpose.

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So Mick from Wolf Creek was once…. a total stud. WTF?

Kristine: Oh absolutely. The most obvious and cool connection is how the watches stop when the party gets to the spiritual spot where the land trumps civilized interlopers, just as the watches stop at the crater where Mick does his hunting in Wolf Creek.

Sean: Can I list all the parallels?

Kristine: Yes, please.

Sean: Okay – 1. Both movies revolve around a significant geological landmark.

2. Like you said, Miss McCraw’s watch has “stopped at twelve – never stopped before. Must be something magnetic.”

3. They’re both about the interaction between civilization and wilderness.

4. They’re both metaphors for the “soul of Australia” a.k.a. the Outback (Mick/Hanging Rock).

Kristine: Yes, yes, yes. And also people disappearing into the land and the brutalization of young, civilized women (whether real [Wolf Creek] or imagined [maybe Picnic at Hanging Rock]. 

Sean: Absolutely. Remember the doctor’s long monologue about Irma’s body at the end? 

Kristine: Sean. Sean. 

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Conformity porn

Sean: Yes? 

Kristine: “I have examined her and it’s quite intact.” = Disgusting. Word rape. 

Sean: Hahaha. Yeah, he gives this really clinical analysis of her body. He also says, “A week out in the bush and nothing more serious than shock and exposure. Extraordinary. No bones broken. Some cuts and bruises to the face and the hand. To the hands especially. Quite scratched. The fingernails are all torn and broken. There are several other unusual features. Her head is badly bruised. Probably concussion. A blow, maybe? Or a fall? But then if she fell, why is the rest of the body unmarked? It’s quite unblemished. And the feet, too, are quite unmarked, which is very strange as she was not wearing shoes or stocking when she was found.” The way in which her body simply becomes an object (“the fingernails,” “the feet”) that tells a story for the RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority] to try to interpret is really upsetting and fascinating. [Editor’s Note: For the backstory on RIMA, see our discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy.] One thing I love about this movie is how it stymies the attempts of all RIMAs to build linear narratives. The doctor is never going to arrive at an answer. Like the old man says, “Some question’s got answers, some doesn’t.”

Kristine: Can I interrupt you? 

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: I am compelled to say this is one of my favorite movies we have watched for horror movie club, period. 

Sean: Yay! 

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I am speechless

Kristine: And (I have never said this before in my life) this movie did pan flute music right. (Take note, The Wicker Man). I was actually laughing at how awesome and effective the fucking pan flute was.

Sean: Admit you love this movie because you love Edith.

Kristine: Edith. The best thing about Edith was during the closing scene, when the camera slowly pans around the picnic party, and everyone is doing an action iconic to their character… and Edith is shoving a piece of cake in her mouth. So mean, but so funny. 

Sean: This is a quote directly from my notes: “SHOT OF FAT EDITH WOLFING DOWN CAKE.”

Kristine: Ha!

Sean: True.

Kristine: Wait, let me cut and paste from my Evernote page…Closing shot showing the girls, each in her own element… Camera pans to Edith – shoving cake in her mouth!” 

Sean: It is too good.

Kristine: So, is it acceptable to call a fatty “the dumpling”? Because I really want to start doing that. 

Sean: Edith is a horrid cow anyway. When she starts leading the girls in attacking Irma? Like maenads? 

Kristine: That scene was truth though. The truth of humanity.

 

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Red Riding Hood and the Maenads

Sean: And then Sara is like, fucking tied into an iron maiden? 

Kristine: Can I confess something? It might make me a horrible person. 

Sean: Ok… 

Kristine: I was upset and shaken by the attack on Irma… but then when Mlle de Poitiers walks back and discovers Sara tied to the wall, I laughed and laughed. I kind of hated pitiable Sara and I understood why Appleyard picked on her. 

Sean: Gasp. 

Kristine: Did you get the feeling that Miss Lumley, the teacher who also wasn’t allowed to go on the picnic, and was playing piano during the dance class when Irma was attacked, was a former student at the school and was the Sara of her day? And Mrs. Appleyard abused her and still has her under her thumb? Did you love Sara??? 

Sean: Yes. I’ll tell you one of the main things that irked me about the movie this time around: The only person whose psychological reaction to the disappearances I care about is Sara and the movie doesn’t spend enough time on that. And it really bugged when the movie keeps lingering on Michael’s stupid feelings and all his visions of swans and I hated it.

Kristine: Huh. I was going to say, Sara doesn’t even have a reaction to the disappearances. It’s just, like, “Oh my best friend/object of my undying unrequited love has just disappeared forever…par for the course in my life!” Michael is disgusting, for the record. 

Sean: Disgusting. I think he is Peter Weir’s proxy.

Kristine: He is a pig-faced, dandily-dressed freak. 

Sean: So you had started out by saying that you wanted to discuss John Jarratt, who played Albert here and Mick in Wolf Creek. You got that Albert and Sara were siblings right? 

Kristine: I didn’t get that until the end. I mean, I didn’t intuit it on my own or anything. What about the homo love betwixt Albert and Michael? The clasping of hands (when he passed Albert the scrap of dress lace)?

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Repressed goblin prince

Sean: There is a lot of homoerotic tension in the movie all around. Appleyard and the vanished Miss McCraw, Sara and Miranda, Albert and Michael, etc. 

Kristine: Real quick – we need to discuss McCraw more – but during the closing scene we were talking about? With Edith’s cake eating? Did you notice that McCraw was eating a banana? The “masculine” lesbian destroys the phallus. 

Sean: More like ingests it and absorbs its powers. Remember she had “so much masculine intellect,” according to Mrs. Appleyard. 

Kristine: I feel like Albert mostly exists to show how disgusting Michael is. I love his line about how the difference between the two of them is that he (Albert) says “rude” things, whereas Michael thinks them… Albert is honest about his feelings; Michael is repressed, and therefore is a freak. 

Sean: I believe the exchange goes: “I’d rather you didn’t say crude things like that.” “I say the crude things, you just think ‘em.”

Kristine: Right. Also, though Michael is obsessed with the missing girls and leads to Irma’s discovery, he is unable to actually rescue her. He needs mucho macho Albert to do the actual rescuing. 

Sean: True. Albert’s reaction to finding Irma was heartbreaking and made me love him.

Kristine: I loved Albert’s reaction to discovering Irma was alive, too, but did you notice how at first (when I presume he thought she was dead) he roughly nudges her body with his boot? That was hard to watch, but also a realistic action.

Sean: You’re right on the money about the working-class masculinity of Albert being contrasted with Michael’s dandyism. I wonder if this ties into the movie’s overall gender politics, in which the feminine is a portal to “the other side,” where masculinity is a barrier. Appleyard, Sara and Edith, who are all mannish, masculine women, are denied entrance to the primordial, as is the butch Albert. But the girls and foppish Michael gain access. I think that fever-dream sequence with Michael out on the Rock hallucinating is amazing. And I am basically convinced that Twin Peaks is directly inspired by this movie.

Kristine: I wouldn’t argue that, not at all. Everything’s coming up Lynchian.

Sean: It really is. Even the aforementioned pan flute reminded me of Badalamenti’s melodramatic score for Twin Peaks.

Kristine: Miranda is Laura Palmer/Serena van der Woodsen. 

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A skink for your thoughts

Sean: Yes and also a dead ringer for… Leelee.

Kristine: I am ignoring your Leelee obsession. Remember the dwarf in Twin Peaks saying, “She has secrets”? That is so Miranda.

Sean: Sara tells Mlle de Poitiers, “Miranda knew lots of things other people don’t know… secrets. She knew she wouldn’t come back.” 

Kristine: Yeah. But ugh Sara, Plain and Tall.

Sean: I loved the scenes of Sara refusing to recite the proscribed verse for Appleyard and then putting her head on the desk in defeat – that was so me in grade school. I identified with Sara a lot. Did your heart break in this movie at all? 

Kristine: To answer your question – no. There were moments I was upset and unnerved. But I am not convinced that anyone actually met a bad end. I am not convinced the disappearances and deaths were bad outcomes for those characters. 

Sean: What? You are a sociopath. I am filled with revulsion. 

Kristine: Did your heart break? What? 

Sean: Yes. 

Kristine: I am embracing the point of the movie. Everything happens when and how it should. 

Sean: I think I need to let you in on my reading/overall understanding of the movie…

Kristine: Fine, and then let me have a go. 

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Cake murder

Sean: My reading is that in this movie, the land is a hungry entity and the girls are sacrificial virgins swallowed by the land, and in some ways, offered up by the community/civilization in order to keep the chaotic forces of nature at bay. We all know of the whole “throwing young virgins into the volcano” trope from indigenous societies. Well, Hanging Rock exists as a result of volcanic activity. McCraw says “The Rocks all round – Mt. 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 of mamelons we see in Hanging Rock… ” All those geological terms have to do with vulcanism. I also think the movie embraces, in its first 30 minutes, a kind of Wicker Man-y pagan overtone. The girls chant and recite love poems almost like incantations. They hold aloft the statue of St. Valentine like a pagan idol (and later, they cut the heart-shaped cake with the knife, a symbolic act of sacrifice). Also, as you noted, we end the movie with the body of the cake being consumed, but in the beginning the girls cut the cake and then don’t touch it. We only see it eaten in the last minutes of the movie. Appleyard goes on and on about how dangerous the Rock is. About how there “could be snakes” (and remember the lingering shot of the lizard slinking by the prone bodies of the girls later, on the Rock.) I think the Rock is configured as a primal, paleolithic, pre-Christian site of Nature. Remember how the girls faint/collapse on the Rock? And remove their clothes like sacrificial virgins? In a state of orgiastic something-something? The whole tone of those scenes where they march, mesmerized, off into oblivion feels chthonic and pagan to me. THE OLD GODS. And that is why this movie hurts my heart. The girls wander off into oblivion and it feels like the wheels on some much larger, much older metaphysical machine turning. They’re so small, so ultimately insignificant.

Kristine: Okay, I agree with basically everything you have said – except for the ultimate conclusion it brings you to. I absolutely agree that the Rock is a living entity. I loved all the shots of it (with accompanying pan flute, natch) where it looked like these immense looming faces, like Easter Island heads or something. I loved how in some shots the Rock looked like it was vibrating or pulsing; breathing, almost. The scenes of the girls on the Rock, when they lie down in a circle, when they get up and walk, trance-like, and actually enter the Rock – Amazing. And I agree with you on all the pagan stuff, and the significance of the deliberate shot of the knife cutting through the cake heart, but then no one consuming the cake. But I don’t see how the world of the Rock is more evil or dangerous then the “civilized” world of Mrs. Appleyard’s Academy – Sara is proof of that. And I disagree with the virgin sacrifice. I mean, I think the girls being female and virginal IS part of why they are called to, and accepted by, the Rock. But I don’t see it is a bad thing, and I didn’t read it as a “deal” between the community and the land, though I think that is an interesting idea. I think Edith’s outcome is evidence that the girls that did go into the Rock were willing to do so. Edith is also a virgin, but she does not fall under the spell of the Rock, because she is not on board. I think the other girls really wanted to “leave” their world. This doesn’t explain why Irma is sent back, though, I haven’t figured that one out. Do you have a theory on Irma?

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The Wicker Man 2: Honeys in the Bush

Sean: One more detail: This Valentine’s Day falls on a Saturday, which means that the previous day was a Friday the 13th – a day of bad omens. That casts a negative pall over the whole thing.

Kristine: I didn’t catch that. 

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: I still don’t see how escaping society and entering (literally and figuratively) Nature is necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it’s awesome. 

Sean: I feel like the eroticization of the girls, and the way in which their incipient sexuality marks them for death, is highly problematic. Remember the poems they recite? The girls read those valentines from each other (which opens the movie with strong undertones of same-sex desire or just polymorphous perversity right away). One girl reads, “Meet me, love, when day is ending.” You only realize that Death is the addressee for those lines later, when Irma says, “If only we could stay out all night and watch the moon rise.” 

Kristine: But sexuality IS a part of the girls – a huge part at their age. It’s just the truth.

Sean: And Irma goes on to say, “Sara reminds me of a little deer Papá brought home once – I looked after it but it died. Mamá always said it was doomed.” And when Edith asks what she means, Irma responds, “Doomed to die, of course.” She is talking about them.

Kristine: I felt the exact way about Sara. 

Sean: Irma then recites a snatch of poetry: “The boy stood on the burning deck/Whence all but he had fled, tra-la…” which is a poem by Felicia Hemans called “Casabianca” (1826). I researched the poem. Check this out: “The poem commemorates an actual incident that occurred in 1798 during the Battle of the Nile aboard the French ship Orient. The young son Giocante (his age is variously given as ten, twelve and thirteen) of commander Louis de Casabianca remained at his post and perished when the flames caused the magazine to explode. This poem was a staple of elementary school readers in the United Kingdom and the United States over a period of about a century spanning, roughly, the 1850s through the 1950s. So often memorized and recited as to lose any shred of meaning or emotion, it is today remembered mostly as a tag line and as a topic of parodies.” Remember when Sara, who is trapped in the classroom with Appleyard rather than being on the picnic, says that poetry “doesn’t make sense” and wants to recite her own poem (“An Ode to St. Valentine”)? Appleyard responds, “Sense? You little ignoramus. Evidently you don’t know that Mrs. Felicia Hemans is considered one of the finest of our English poets.” Hemans is the author of the lines that Irma recites moments before they vanish, about being doomed.

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HAIR

Kristine: We don’t know that they die, Sean. The only known deaths are Sara and Mrs. Appleyard. And both of them needed to die – Sara’s life sucked and was about to get suckier. Remember after Appleyard tells her she is being sent back to the orphanage and Sara smiles? That’s because Appleyard has just given her the “push” (heh) she needed to do the deed and kill herself and be free of the horrible life, this wretched hand she’s been dealt. And Appleyard’s suicide… She was a miserable, horrible person and she knew it. Her suicide ended her pain and her infliction of pain on others. Her death is a good thing. Right?????

Sean: I am morally appalled by your smiling endorsement of this movie’s death-obsession.

Kristine: Can I make an aside?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: You said you loved Sara’s refusal to learn and recite the poetry, but it made me so mad. I was like, “You masochist! Just learn the goddamn poem and stop basically begging Appleyard to punish and abuse you!” I hated her victim thing (a.k.a. the doomed deer syndrome). Hated.

Sean: You don’t get it.

Kristine: Can’t we disagree? Why must I be wrong? 

Sean: Yes, we can disagree. You are the one putting things in terms of right and wrong, note me.

Kristine: You saying I “don’t get it” means that I don’t understand the movie. I think I do understand the movie, I just interpret it differently.

Sean: No, sorry, I meant you don’t get what’s it like to be Sara. I told you that I WAS the kid refusing to do what I was told in school.

Kristine: Okay, why did you do that? 

Sean: Sometimes refusal is the only way you have to assert power. I certainly used refusal as a means to assert power. To wrest control away from the despots in charge of me.  I was watching that scene going, “Go Sara! Don’t give in!”

Kristine: I believe 100% that was why you did it. I don’t read Sara the same way. I think she needs to be the victim, in perpetuity. Victim = her destiny. 

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Math lady of the wilderness

Sean: But I feel like you’re missing the point of her monologue about getting her hair cut off for daring to fantasize about joining the circus.

Kristine: Okay, explain. 

Sean: That monologue is about power and sadism.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: And about how Sara, as an orphan, has always had her thoughts policed, her body desecrated and her will crushed by the system.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: She doesn’t want to be a victim. Her character is like, the most important part of the movie’s critique of class and the power dynamics that come along with it. Remember that she’s excluded from the picnic and later kicked out of school because of money, because her mysterious, off-screen “guardian” hasn’t paid her tuition and fees. Her entire life is controlled by the whims of some far-off, shadowy guardian person. I feel like you’re being a bad feminist right now in regards to Sara.

Kristine: You’re wrong. I wanted Sara to say fuck you to Appleyard (by the way, I just got that her name refers to yet another place of Nature, something fertile and green – which is ironic of course) and escape and get to live a real life and she did those things (except for the live a life part) when she killed herself. I just felt that until that point Sara participated in this sick dance with Appleyard. She fell into the role of victim without a struggle. It’s not her fault; it’s all she knows. But it was still frustrating to watch.

Sean: Holy victim-blaming. She is not “participating,” she is trapped. I feel like you have a poster of Mrs. Hannigan in your bedroom that you draw little red hearts on. And there’s a picture of Lil’ Orphan Annie on your dartboard. Sara does resist, and that is noble. Part of her love for Miranda, I think, is that resistance and rebellion. Miranda represents everything she’s not, a fucking “Boticelli angel” who floats through the world mesmerizing everyone and getting what she wants. Sara is a plain nobody.

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Pretending she’s at Coachella

Kristine: I mean, I do agree that Sara is bound up in the movie’s class politics. Didn’t you think it was thoughtless and highhanded when Miranda talks about her “funny, wonderful” family and her horses and having Sara come visit them – and asks Sara, “You’d like that wouldn’t you?” It is just one example of the many class struggles in the movie. I think the contrast between Miranda/Sara and Michael/Albert is interesting.

Sean: Yes. Class is on this movie’s mind. But this whole notion of “Death is just like, totes better for these ladies” is nihilistic and morally bankrupt.

Kristine: I am shocked and semi-offended that you are calling my read “morally bankrupt.” Are you against assisted suicide, too? First of all, I think the girls chose and I think death IS an acceptable choice for a number of reasons. But secondly, and I said this before and you ignored it, We don’t know that the girls died. The only confirmed deaths are Sara and Appleyard. Irma is still alive, so Miranda and Marion could be, too. I think they were enveloped (willingly) into Nature somehow, and I don’t read that as a death, just as a transformation. I am being the opposite of nihilistic. I am being fluid about the nature of existence. Existence occurs in forms other than the corporeal. I am being hopeful and see the movie as full of life if you are open to things, like Miranda. It’s the people who are closed and repressed like Appleyard (and you) who get death.

Sean: Hmmm. I will attempt to respect that position, but it is hard.

Kristine: Thanks, I guess.

Sean: I will go so far as to say that there is something darkly alluring about the idea of leaving it all behind to be subsumed in Nature. And the movie does show how repressed the girls are wonderfully with that shot of all the girls tightening up their corsets in a line or being told “You may remove your gloves” because it’s a hot day but only “once the drag has passed through Woodend.” So when the girls remove their stockings and shoes it feels shocking and rebellious and I loved that.

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Bound and GAG

Kristine: Yes. I loved that scene, too. How they had to remain covered and “respectable” in front of the townies, but then could be freed when alone in Nature, and their nonstop giggling and glee when they got the small liberty of the glove removal. That was an amazing scene.

Sean: Remember Edith being like “Irma look at them. Where in the world are they going? Without their shoes?” It’s like to have bare feet is the most controversial thing in the world. Also, the doctor notes about Irma, “the feet, too, are quite unmarked, which is very strange as she was not wearing shoes or stocking when she was found.”

Kristine: Right, yes. The role the school played in the town was interesting to me… 

Sean: But I still am against the idea of being like, Girls = death angels 

Kristine: If you were here I would beat you. I don’t think they are dead. Goddamn it. 

Sean: Ok, stop right there. You can’t be serious. 

Kristine: I am.

Sean: Explain please. 

Kristine: I’ve said this three times. There is no evidence that Miranda, Marion and McCraw are dead and that is one of the main foundational points of the whole movie! I feel like you are not even listening to what I am saying. They disappeared. We don’t know if they are dead. We don’t know. If they were dead, there would be bodies… as there are in the cases of Sara and Appleyard. 

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Slutty ankles

Sean: Sorry. I thought you were being facetious before. 

Kristine: Whatever happened is bigger than death, and I interpret it as a continued but altered state of existence. You are being nihilistic by assuming that they are dead.

Sean: I feel like you are being a namby-pamby thinking they are alive. So what do they do – eat bugs? Hunt wallabies? Sleep in trees?

Kristine: You have been incredibly small-minded and judgmental during this discussion, and also you are not paying attention. I don’t think they are alive in their human form. I think they have transcended that and are now existing in another state. And if I am a namby-pamby, then so is Peter Weir because this concept is definitely what he is putting forth. If you are so sure they are dead, how did they die? Where are the bodies? When you saw them enter the Rock, you felt that was an ominous death march? Because I found it to be haunting, but also awesome and beautiful, like a portal to another world, not as the entrance to a crypt. I feel like you are Edith screaming “No!!” when they enter the Rock. 

Sean: Ok, I get it at last. I don’t disagree with that reading even though I have my own thoughts.

Kristine: I am surprised that you are so convinced of this one, bleak outcome when I think everyone can agree the movie is ambiguous about what happens. And that you are being so “Western-minded” about it.

Sean: I am sorry.  I misunderstood what you were saying.

Kristine: It’s okay. I am not chastising you. I am genuinely surprised. 

Sean: So trivia – the actress who played Appleyard actually killed herself out of grief because the actor Rex Harrison threw her over. 

Kristine: Whoa. I loved all the scenes of her ridic quarters at the school – and the scene right after she sets Sara’s suicide in motion when she is looking around at all the portraits of stern, dour-looking people of authority and surely thinking about how she has not measured up to their example. Back to before, I really want to know what you think killed the girls if they did die. And also, I know it is open to interpretation whether Sara killed herself or was pushed by Appleyard, but I read it as she did it herself. But Appleyard did “push” her and decided her fate when she told her about going back to the orphanage. And Appleyard knew Sara would kill herself, which was why she was already dressed in mourning clothes. Your thoughts? 

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A Black Veil for Lisa

Sean: Yes, I think that there is ambiguity over Sara’s death and you could read it that Appleyard’s later death is related to her guilt for “killing” Sara either figuratively or literally. But also longing for the lost Miss McCraw.

Kristine: Right. 

Sean: I am sorry we are having such a hard time understanding each other. I thought I was clear that I think the girls were a death sacrifice to Nature – that they were destroyed/obliterated by the Old Gods/Nature Gods.

Kristine: Okay, got it. I like it when we disagree and have our own takes on the movie, but it is rare that we are so far apart. I think I am a little taken aback.

Sean: I know, right? Fires of passion.

Kristine: I want to think about your reading and think about the movie from that point-of-view. Will you do the same for me? 

Sean: Yes of course. I am totally into your reading. One last detail: the “red cloud.” That is ominous.

Kristine: So, don’t get frustrated, but I want to clarify. You see this movie as a tragedy through and through and the girls are victims, yes? 

Sean: Um…. yes. And I also think the movie eroticizes their deaths and mythologizes them as swan-ladies.

Kristine: Okay. I see it as weirdly hopeful and life-full. I see the ominous signs –  Friday the 13th, red cloud – as warnings about harm befalling them from society, and society’s idea about these women’s lives. But I don’t see it as ominous for the girls and McCraw. I think they choose, and they choose to transcend.

Sean: Hmmm. Ok, McCraw ripping off her skirt could suggest that. 

Kristine: I can’t believe I am the airy-fairy hippie and you are the hard-nosed realist here. 

Sean: Hahaha. I am dying.

Kristine: So, I hated the swan lady thing.

Sean: I love this movie more every time I watch it.

Kristine: I think it’s very interesting that we experienced this movie in such different ways and we both love it. I mean, that to me is major kudos to Peter Weir, right? 

Sean: Yes. I’d also still like to debate whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is a horror movie or not.

Kristine: Okay, yes. Also I guess I would like to briefly mention the other examples of class tension in the movie – the maid and the handyman, and how the town reacts to the school and the girls pre- and post-picnic. And also Mlle de Poitiers, because I didn’t understand her character very well. 

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Raggedy Ann as nymphet

Sean: Minnie the hot maid is the mom from Animal Kingdom.

Kristine: No fucking way.

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Wow. I love Australian cinema just because there is this stable of actors we get to see over and over. It’s fun.

[Editor’s Note: We picked up our conversation the next day, after taking a break to consider each other’s opinions about the movie.]

Sean: So, I have considered your perspective and I am now open to it.  The big rub for me was that I didn’t understand that you thought they like, metaphysically were absorbed into the universe.

Kristine: Okay. You thought I meant they died in Nature and I thought that was great? 

Sean: Yes. Exactly.

Kristine: No, sorry if it came out muddled. I will say that I do stand by my statement that suicide, or knowingly walking into death, IS a legitimate choice for all sentient beings. But I don’t think that is what was going on in Picnic at Hanging Rock, at least not for Miranda, Marion and McCraw. 

Sean: Right…  And I still think there’s plenty of evidence to support my more cynical reading. But I think the movie intends for it to be ambiguous and wants to support several ways of interpreting the events at once. 

Kristine: Oh absolutely. But tell me your evidence.

Sean: Well, all the stuff I said yesterday. Virgin sacrifice = volcanoes. The Rock is volcanic. One of the girls marvels that the Rock has been “Waiting a million years just for us.” The red cloud.

Kristine: Yeah… One of my favorite parts, that definitely was menacing, is the all the point-of-view shots from within the cave looking out, when the Rock is “watching” the girls [just like, later, ugly Michael watches them].

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Maw of the beast

Sean: Right, the Rock does seem like a kind of monster in that sense. Like the girls are Andromeda and the Rock is the Kraken. I was trying to think about what elements of the movie make it a horror movie and my final answer (and this is just my opinion) is that it is the musical score of the movie that marks it as a horror movie, and it is the musical score that tells us a lot about how we are meant to view the events.

Kristine:  I love that idea. But before we delve into that: Do you think Michael did anything perverse to Irma before going into his hypothermic freak zombie state?

Sean: No I don’t, but I don’t think it is an accident that Michael and Albert’s very presence in the bush make the possibility of banal misogyny being the culprit for the disappearances very real. Appleyard says of McCraw: “I came to rely on that woman, trust her. How could she allow herself to be spirited away? Lost. Raped. Murdered in cold blood like a silly schoolgirl at that wretched Hanging Rock.” Raped and murdered are possibilities. 

Kristine: I was thinking all day about how, still, rape is construed as the worst thing that can happen. Like, women are always getting warned about getting raped. Umm, how about getting fucking murdered??? And also how, even though if the girls were raped it would be the worst thing, at least then it would somehow “make sense”, right? When they are found unmolested, no one can make sense of it and they all go crazy trying to figure it out. Why would you bother disappearing a girl if not to rape her? 

Sean: Yeah and I think all the oohing and aahing about how ‘intact’ the girls are is about the prissy social mores of the community. If we go with your reading of the movie, this is what the girls escape from by merging with the Rock.

Kristine: Exactly. They transcend. Remember Miranda’s smile when she goes away? And then Sara has that same smile when she decides to off herself. Liberation. 

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Dead lesbians make good fertilizer (or so I’ve read)

Sean: It is deliberate that Sara’s death lands her in the greenhouse, the closest facsimile of the Great Nature Spirit… But there’s a threat of sexual violence – with Irma’s missing corset, the red cloud, the sensual shots of the stocking removal and of course Michael’s gaze which sort of becomes the gaze – as you pointed out – of Nature itself.

Kristine: Maybe it’s not sexual violence. Maybe the doffing of the corsets is the doffing of repressed sexuality. Maybe the gloves, the shoes, the corsets were the real menace all along.

Sean: But whyfore then all the talk of being “doomed”? And why the ominous, horror movie musical score? Once Edith screams and the psychedelic terror kicks in… 

Kristine: Well, even though my read of the disappearances on Hanging Rock is optimistic, I agree that this is a horror movie. An act happens, and the act itself might be neutral, but the fallout is very, very harmful. It’s like a disease that spreads. Remember when the party is going to the site (in their Hussey buggies. Did you notice the placard on the buggy??) and the townfolk are cheering and yelling and treating them like rock stars? And then after the incident, the townies won’t even look at anyone from the school. They are tainted. In fact, the adoring gaze of the Woodenders is replaced by the intrusive and analytical gaze of the media – remember the scene where the paparazzo is photographing the girls outside the school walls and Appleyard runs out in a panic and rushes them back inside, away from the gaze of the camera?

Sean: Hmmm. So you mean that, to civilization, the idea of vanishing into Nature is a horror? That rejoining the primordial and uncivilized is monstrous?

Kristine: Not exactly… I don’t know how to explain. I guess I think a lot of horror is about one thing, one jarring, traumatic event and what the repercussions are for people. And how evil can find a foothold in the unexplained and spread. 

Sean: What is the “evil”? 

Kristine: In this case, the repression of sexuality. It’s what causes Appleyard’s crimes against others and also Michael’s complete freak-out. Michael feels like a guilty rapist from just looking at Miranda, and it drives him nuts.

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Tra-la

Sean: I see. But then, why are the girls “doomed”? Why would they themselves talk about being “doomed”? Why the details like Friday the 13th, the red cloud, and all that?  If their dissolution into Nature is a beautiful transcendence, why the scary music and the doom talk? 

Kristine: Remind me of when the girls said they were doomed. 

Sean: Irma says ““Sara reminds me of a little deer Papá brought home once – I looked after it but it died. Mamá always said it was doomed. Doomed to die, of course.” And Edith is all – What is doomed, Irma????? and then Irma recites that line from the Hemans poem: ““The boy stood on the burning deck/Whence all but he had fled, tra-la…” About the young boy sacrificed by the community to win the battle.

Kristine: Hmmm. I see all that as them reciting or reacting to the roles dictated to them by this super-repressive society. 

Sean: I feel like you’re skirting the question.

Kristine: Umm, no. That is my answer and it is legitimate. Also, volcanoes might be agents of destruction, but they also bring about new life. A rebirth, a new landscape.

Sean: The girls conceive of themselves as doomed and the movie does too (Friday the 13th, again).

Kristine: I disagree. Friday the 13th is a man-made conceit. I think the Rock is so much bigger then all that hoo-hah. 

Sean: So you are saying that when they say doomed, they mean they’re doomed by the society? 

Kristine: I think yes, if they live by society’s rules, they are doomed. 

Sean: So then they don’t mean doomed by their fate on the Rock. Right? 

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Poster for punk show, circa 1900

Kristine: That is what I think, yes.

Sean: Ok, now that is clear to me. So then Albert’s dream is about that fantasy of escape? That Sara is also “transcending”? Remember Albert tells us “[Sara] always liked pansies. And she went all sort of… misty-like. I calls out, “Sara, don’t go yet.” “Good-bye, Bertie,” she says. “I’ve come a long way to see ya, and now I must go.” And she went. Clear through that wall over there.” Going ‘through the wall’ is escape from the bindings of the civilized? And Sara’s predilection for pansies is a sign of her yearning for the Natural and the primordial?

Kristine: I think yes, and I think Sara (plain and tall) agrees, which is why she smiles and is finally at peace and content when she realizes what she is going to escape.

Sean: Huh. I feel like in your interpretation this movie becomes like A Teenage Cutter’s Guide to Merging With the Absolute.

Kristine: I get that the Albert/Sara sibling thing lends to the uncanny-ness of the whole film, but for me it was unnecessary and too soap opera. Maybe it’s because, who cares about Sara? And to address your statement, Sara’s “solution” is not as joyful and transcendent as the others’, obviously. Beause Sara is … ugh. 

Sean: You are mean.

Kristine: Even in transcending, there is a hierarchy, Sean.

Sean: You are the mean girl of Cutter’s Row. I feel exhausted by this spirited discussion. I need to go relax and process.

Kristine: I think what you really need is to escape into Nature. It is beautiful there in the Beyond, Sean.

Sean: Tra-la, Kristine. Tra-la.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Masterpiece!

The Freak’s Rating:  Masterpiece!

The migration of the nymphet begins when the weather turns warm...
The migration of the nymphet begins when the weather turns warm…

16 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

  1. Always love your discussions. Some of the most enjoyable among the horror blogs. I’ll say I fall slightly closer to Kristine’s interpretation on this one. For these girls it seems like a freedom/escape from their restrictions and repressive surroundings, into a natural, ethereal (?) state. Miranda seems perpetually drawn to her fate (whatever that is), saying to Sarah, she must learn to love someone apart from her, because “she won’t be here much longer.” /”Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place,” etc…

    I recommend you guys check out “La Residencia (The House That Screamed),” another repressive boarding school flick I recently discovered. It’s from the director of “Who Can Kill a Child?” and sort of combines/parallels “Picnic,” “Psycho” and “Suspiria.” It’s not nearly the masterpiece “Picnic” is, but totally ripe for your brand of gender/queer breakdowns.

    Keep being fantastic!

    1. Thanks Adam – I adore Who Can Kill a Child? and have read about/been aware of La Residencia and wanting to check it out for a while. Sounds awesome.

      Checked out your blog – it’s very funny, especially the interactions between text and imagery. Love the “Something Rank” series. Adding you to our blogroll.

      Botticelli angels 4 life.

  2. People still think this is based on a true story! Not sure if it’s because of the true locations, or something to do with the novel – I seem to remember a story about the author claiming the events really happened. Will do some research.
    Hanging Rock is VERY eerie, especially if you’ve recently watched the film.
    I like Sean’s view of the film – sounds a bit Lovecraftian! (Picnic at Arkham Rock!)

    1. I think a many-tentacled Old One could have at least made a BRIEF appearance. When I first saw the movie, I was under the impression it was based on true events and only later realized, no its just an adaptation of a work of fiction. So odd that it has that legacy/urban legend status.

  3. Do you know that the writer of the original novel, Joan Lindsay, originally included a chapter which explained what had happened, and took it out before publication?

  4. “Alice Springs is the only Australian town of any significance/size to be named after a woman…”.
    *cough* Adelaide *cough*