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Three students and a school teacher disappear on an excursion to Hanging Rock, in Victoria, on Valentine's Day, 1900. Widely (and incorrectly) regarded as being based on a true story, the movie follows those that disappeared, and those that stayed behind, but it delights in the asking of questions, not the answering of them. Written by
David Carroll <email@example.com>
If you're up for a free-form dramatization of the word 'unease'...
I remember reading (God knows where) someone's shaggy-dog story about this film. Apparently, this individual had a friend (as people who tell these kind of stories tend to) who went to see 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' sometime in the mid 1970s. He was late, there was the inevitable confusion, and he consequently spent the next two hours whimpering in fear - waiting for the chainsaw-wielding assassin to appear and rip into a bunch of immaculately attired Edwardian schoolgirls.
This is probably as good an analogy as any for the sense of dread this film (fitfully) manages to accumulate. Watching it is like seeing weather systems build. Small increments appear, converge on other increments, circling each other ambiguously before merging into a grey, baleful mass that sits there on the horizon, making atmospheric noises. In 'Picnic...' the wind moves plangently through eucalypts, clocks tick, an orphan girl is the victim of snobbish behaviour, girls gossip, more clocks tick, the wind moves through more eucalypts, the clocks stop, something 'unspeakably eerie' happens, and that's pretty much it.
Ultimately, the film is about Peter Weir placing markers of European culture
corsets, watches, a locally built replica of an Eighteenth century
English manor - in the vast, contoured, deeply ambivalent Australian hinterland, and letting his camera record the absurdity of those spatial relationships. His early twentieth century Australians anxiously encircle themselves with the accoutrements of civilization they've brought with them - its dress codes, its class politics, its architectural styles - as if shielding their bodies from the unfamiliar landscape outside. Yet their attempts to maintain a European identity by 'keeping up appearances' come off as merely obsessional.
The elaborate dresses the girls wear, the formalities observed at the picnic (and at a surreal dinner party set on a flat, sunblasted lake edge - a Seurat painting gone horribly wrong), far from being emblems that mark a cultural continuity unifying Australia with Europe, seem oddly fetishistic - deeply arbitrary. Weir's characters seem to sense this meaninglessness also; they're enervated, without conviction. They seem to realize that, in bearing items of European material culture within this new environment, they're merely in possession of a bunch of dead letters - signifiers rendered powerless (decontextualized) by distance. As more than one character remarks, 'it all looks different here'.
To add to the unease, Weir intercuts all this with shots of the landscape - huge, forested, confrontationally empty. There's a sense of something staring back, unimpressed, 'personified' by the oddly biomorphic shapes within Hanging Rock itself.
One can still feel the reverberations, twenty five years on. There are definite echoes of 'Picnic...' in 'The Piano', 'The Virgin Suicides', and the whole slew of films that erstwhile Antipodean Sam Neill rather dodgily categorises the 'Cinema of Unease'. If you really want to freak yourself out, try watching this and 'The Quiet Earth' in the same sitting. You may never feel absolute faith in your ties to the physical universe again.
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