Yesterday I went into HMV, looking for a standard Blu Ray edition of a film I’ve recently seen that has stuck with me since in a way that I can’t quite describe, Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock. The only version they had was a pricy Criterion Blu Ray/Dvd combo which also included the original novel which Weir based his film on. Now normally I’m reluctant with Criterion, as I almost always disagree with the films they pick for their releases. Also..it was expensive as shit. But then I remembered how much it affected me when I first watched it on my humble iPad, and realized that I wanted to have the snazziest output that money could buy, as this is one I’ll be revisiting probably until my years on this rock have run out. At it’s heart it’s a mystery of the deepest primordial resonance, laced with the burgeoning sexuality of its female lead characters, and ultimately leaving an aftertaste of such yearning, mournful sadness that I had no idea movies were even capable of. Weir sets his story in 1900 Australia, with amusing attempts by the British to tame the near prehistoric nature of the land. Their prim, drawn up customs seem ludicrous and surreal in the face of a wild, abstractly formed landscape that meets their need for order and custom with unimpressed chaos.
A group of girls from a nearby boarding school embark on an annual picnic to Hanging Rock, an ominous geological gnarl set in a scorched, unearthly swath of land that evokes the feeling one might get from a partially recalled dream of some far off dimensional plane. For the conservative visitors and the audience alike, the surface of the moon might feel more at home. In a gust of unsettling foreshadowing, several members of their party note that their watches have mysteriously stopped at dead noon. A group of four girls venture forth to explore the upper plateau of the rock, promising their teacher Mademoiselle (radiant, elemental Helen Morse) they’ll be back before tea. Four enter the jagged, awaiting maze; two disappear and are never heard from again. It’s an enigma that shakes the foundations of the boarding school to its core. From stoic headmistress (Rachel Roberts) to a tragically abandoned orphan girl (Margaret Nelson, staggering for a girl who’d had no previous acting experience) no one is quite the same after the incident, almost as if whatever intangible forces responsible for the girl’s disappearance have reached out and deeply disturbed every form of life in its vicinity, the very madness of the continent itself driving these civilized newcomers to the brink of soul shaking distress. In spite of the film’s beauty, there are also moments of sheer horror that rival anything in your garden variety fright flick. The key scene where the girl’s are last scene is fogged over with such a feeling unshakable dread, crafted through sound and editing alone, no actual discernible violence or threat. It’s utter genius and you begin to question why you’ve got hordes of goosebumps from so ambiguous a scene, but you’re left snatching for the same answers to a feeling akin to the sensation of a quickly dissipating nightmare I mentioned above. That’s how powerful the filmmaking is… You are shaken without ever really knowing why or what’s the matter, which is really the concept of a mystery distilled to its purest form.
What claws at your mind and lingers in the fringes of your awareness long after watching the film is its atmosphere of mounting dread, like knowing for certain the the worst possible type of end is coming for you, yet being utterly unable to articulate exactly what it is. The soundscape is thick with melancholic unease as well, evident in a knockout pan flute solo from Georghe Zamfir, providing a hazy chorus that will stand up the hairs on your arm in its beauty and terror. The scenes at Hanging Rock are lifted straight out of a subconscious place and laid down on the canvas of film with the same exquisite care of pressing flowers, which we see the girls doing early on. Film essentially does this: the painstaking preservation of beauty for countless generations to be pleased, terrified and puzzled by. There’s no better version of this film I’d rather have that with than this one.