The Criterion Critique: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a 1975 Australian film directed by Peter Weir. It opens with this title card: “On Saturday 14 February 1900 a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mt Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without a trace.”

From that point on it’s safe to say the audience is engaged.

Throughout the film, we are given clues that something odd or even supernatural may have happened. For example, at one point the girls’ carriage driver and teacher both note that their watches have stopped at exactly noon, right around when they arrived at the rock. Should we take this as some unnatural force at this ancient rock plaguing the girls? At another point in the film, as the ladies examine and take measurements of the distinctive geological formation, we notice a small group of men also eating lunch and sunning themselves. After the girls go missing, should we believe that these men did something to them? That perhaps they have been kidnapped or murdered? Were they abducted by a UFO? Did they simply fall  into a crevice in the rock? Is this all a dream?

It really doesn’t matter what theory we come up with because, in the end, no explanation is given and no resolution found. But knowing that doesn’t stop us from trying to arrive at a satisfying conclusion. The film works because we feel a need to know what fate befell these innocent women. Yet, even without a clear explanation of the cause of the disappearance, the film is extremely engrossing and even, dare I write it, hallucinatory.

The film is based on a 1967 novel by Joan Leslie who insisted that it was a work of fiction, but hinted that it might somehow be based in reality. Both the film and the book caused some of its more enthusiastic fans to go back and research old news clippings and death records of the time period in hopes that they would find some basis in fact concerning the odd case. It even made the destination of Hanging Rock a popular tourist attraction Down Under.

From the first time I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock years ago to my most recent viewing for this Criterion release, it always conjures one word to mind: haunting. As with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, we create a heightened level of terror or suspense in our minds that honestly may or may not be present on film. It’s one of those movies that will stay with you for years to come, trapping you in a world of breathtaking cinematography and dreamy surreal visuals — and it just doesn’t want to let go. Picnic at Hanging Rock was released by Criterion on November 3, 1998, and will be released on Blu Ray (also from Criterion) June 14, 2014. It is also currently available for streaming on Hulu Plus.

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