Sunday, 25 May 2014

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Peter Weir's Classic Australian Private Schoolgirl Mystery on deluxe Criterion Blu-Ray box set.

Schoolgirls frolic with their corsets.
I'm down with this. And you?
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) *****
Dir. Peter Weir
Starring: Rachel Roberts, Vivean Gray, Helen Morse,
Kirsty Child, Anne Lambert, Karen Robson, Jane Vallis,
Christine Schuler, Margaret Nelson, Dominic Guard, John Jarrett

Review By Greg Klymkiw

If you've not seen Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock and know absolutely nothing about the contents of its final half hour, then you'll have the ideal conditions under which to see this extraordinary film for the first time. My own first blind helping of the picture upon its inaugural North American release during the late 1970s, proved to be so chill-inducing that subsequent viewings became even richer. In fact, I can still recall specific moments when the gooseflesh made its shivering creepy-crawl upon me. If I had known anything about the final third, I'd have still loved it to death, but that I didn't, made the love so much deeper, so truly, so madly, so deeply deeper.

Everyone Loves Miranada
Miranda Loves Everyone
What Weir doesn't hide from us is what we're about to see. The movie begins quite perfectly with the following statement in the de rigueur 70s white-on-black titles:
"On Saturday 14th 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 trace . . ."
Well, that about sums everything up, at least everything we need to know for now. There will be mystery, no doubt some suspense and, uh, schoolgirls in uniform. So far. So good.

In terms of narrative, the above statement pretty much describes the key incident in the plot that will spiral everything into turmoil. Knowing this right up front heightens our anticipatory dread. From the opening frames, gauzy, happy, David Hamilton-styled shots (the clothed/semi-clothed ones, naturellement) of pretty teenage girls romping about in their frilly nightdresses, bloomers, stockings, corsets and eventually, long, billowy white frocks, sun hats, fine gloves and twirly, tasselled parasols, this is a film that almost always presents us with watchful, fly-on-the-wall and downright fetishistic perspectives.

"Siliceous lava, forced up from deep down below.
Soda trachytes extruded in a highly viscous state,
building the steep sided mamelons."
Knowing what we know further heightens the feverish extent to which the girls are obsessed with St. Valentine's Day and their own budding sexuality. Passing exquisite handmade Valentine cards to each other, reading the inscribed sentiments privately and aloud, they are too breathlessly giddy to even properly wolf down their breakfast.

Gaiety abounds, but so does propriety and portent, the former mostly embodied in the primly coiffed headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts, carrying herself with deliciously stern diesel-dyke comportment) and the latter via the lush pan pipe tones of Zamfir on the soundtrack, dappled with lines of dialogue from the young ladies, especially those emanating from the goddess-like Miranada (Anne Lambert), words that take on the added weight they might normally not have been imbued with if it had not been for the aforementioned terse statement of fact embedded in those opening titles.

The excursion then begins in earnest, our girls accompanied by the schoolmarmish science teacher Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) and the gentle, open, young and romantic French teacher Mademoiselle de Poitier (Helen Morse). Once delivered to the picnic grounds by horse and buggy, Weir's sumptuous imagery allows us to almost smell the delicate, perfumed aromas of all these women mixed with the natural scent of the abundant and varied flora of the site. As the ladies lazily gambol about, they are watched by two strapping young men from opposite ends of Australia's Victorian Era social strata (the nephew of two old coots picnicking nearby and their carriage driver). The gents find common ground via a shared bottle of wine and of course, their respective eyeballs glued to the variety of shapely young lassies.

Always present, strangely ever-watchful is the rock itself - huge, knobby phallus-like structures towering over everyone - ages-old daggers, jettisoned up from the molten bowels of the earth as if to penetrate the moist, open glove of blue sky and wisps of cloud. As opined by Miss McCraw, this is "siliceous lava, forced up from deep down below. Soda trachytes extruded in a highly viscous state, building the steep sided mamelons we see in Hanging Rock."

Mamelons, indeed.

The atmosphere is thick with both innocence and looming disaster: wind-up watches stop mysteriously at the same time, insects buzz amongst the flowers, the most moderate of breezes wafts through the leaves, a glistening knife plunges into a fluffy white Valentine cake. Time stands truly still as books are quietly read and naps are taken. Some lassies, however, are looking for added adventure. Miranda appeals to the kindly, liberal Mademoiselle for permission to take measurements at the rock's base so she and some of her classmates can better adhere to Mrs. Appleyard's orders to compose essays about the locale's geological properties.

With the French teacher's blessings, four of the girls begin their trek into the woods. Miranda turns around to deliver a wave to Mademoiselle. We know something the film's characters don't and allows for Miranda's wave to be infused with all the properties of a farewell. As the film follows the four ladies higher and ever-higher up the rock, maze-like pathways and dark, cave-like openings feel as Pied-Piper-like as they are ever-watchful - POVs taking on even more intensely fetishistic interest in these sweet young things as they're sucked up by the vortex in the sky.

"Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place," says Miranda.

And so, they do.

A piercing scream, a mad rush through canted angles of foreboding - some manner of evil has overtaken the proceedings and Picnic at Hanging Rock soon reveals a mad, desperate attempt to clutch at the straws of clues that become even more obtuse as they're examined and followed. Repression begets hysteria and director Weir delivers frustration, sadness and a mystery so haunting that we know only one thing for sure - truth is in the details, but in life, details are virtually meaningless unless they have some genuinely logical connection.

This, though, is the power of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Truth, even if we know it as such, is ultimately elusive and if anything, we think that maybe the answers to the mystery are hidden in plain sight, but life, as in the movies, can't always be so simple. As Miranda says in the first spoken lines of the film: "What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream." With those words, Weir plunges us into a film that might well be the closest cinematic equivalent to an infinity mirror that's ever been created.

The view is exposed by recursive means. It recedes into a tunnel of mystery upon mystery upon mystery that feels like there's simply never going to be an end in sight.

How creepy, how disturbing and how terrifying is that?


GORGEOUS Criterion Box-Set
Picnic at Hanging Rock is available in an astounding dual format box set from The Criterion Collection. Like another recent Criterion release (Red River), its presentation is clearly a vanguard that few, if any, will be able to approximate. Personally supervised by director Peter Weir, the film has been remastered via a high-definition digital film transfer. The multi-disc box includes an interview with Weir, a brand new documentary on the making of the film, a 1975 on-set documentary, A Recollection . . . Hanging Rock 1900 and a lovely booklet featuring a superb essay by author Megan Abbott and an informative excerpt from Marek Haltof’s 1996 book "Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide". There's a new introduction by David Thomson, author of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" that many will find illuminating, but I suggest to those who've not seen the film to not watch it until afterwards. (This, obviously goes for all of the added value features.) As with their release of Red River, Criterion has again outdone themselves with the whole package. There are two extras that catapult the box into some kind of home entertainment immortality. The first is the inclusion of Homesdale, Peter Weir's hilariously vicious 1971 black comedy.

The second is a brand-new paperback, previously O.O.P. in North American, of Joan Lindsay’s classic of Australian literature that the film uses as its source. This is a truly great book which I'd never read before and after watching this version of the film a couple of times, I dove between the book's covers and thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, it's a magnificent supplement to the film and offers added illumination to the great mystery it and the film recount.