Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Directed by Peter Weir
Screenplay by Cliff Green, based on the novel by Joan Lindsay
Cinematography by Russell Boyd
Starring Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert, and Vivean Gray
Picnic at Hanging Rock is fascinating in that it avoids categorization as a horror or thriller film despite the premise of a community wracked by inexplicable death. Rather than fall back on the tropes of any genre, the film becomes an essay on the forces of the unknown against the knowable; nature, presented as a symbol of chaos and sexuality, is shot by Russell Boyd in crisp clear tones and compositions that belie yet intensify the sense of mystery in the landscape. The film in general consists of very few close-ups, and when a character ventures up into the peak of the hill, the camera frequently cuts to a wide shot from below the rock, forcing the action behind this metaphorical curtain rather than allowing us to follow the character inside the realm of mystery.
The film also makes frequent use of the frame within the frame, and the indoor scenes in which characters are frequently displayed in the angled slant of a mirror are echoed by the exterior scenes in which they are seen from afar, through a compressed lens with a high depth of field, framed by huge slabs of rock. The motif could be a representation of the restraint of the boarding school, in which one student is alternately sent off to bed in the middle of the day and tied up in the corner during a dance class; or perhaps it serves as a distancing mechanism, portraying real life framed as though a work of art (the one missing girl who people seem to care about, Miranda, is frequently compared to a Botticelli painting).
There are hints at the supernatural in the soaring score, which often seems to come out of nowhere. The three girls’ final angelic ascent in white dresses is shot in slow-motion, a technique that contrasts uncannily with the screams and shrieks of a witness who seems to sense some supernatural force. What that witness really sees is never fully explained, and the audience’s suspicions are finally taken into account near the end of the film when a young man proposes to an older gardener that the girls were kidnapped or fell into a hole. The older and wiser, man, of course, will have none of it; he insists that some things are unknowable. The interior scenes, most of which rely only on sparse lighting through windows, with dramatically obscured visages and figures, seem to prove that point. The film offers few clues into the director’s own opinion of “what happened”, and that’s certainly to its advantage; what we have is a carefully constructed mystery set-up (who was where when, who knew and saw what), in which the payoff is that nothing was ever hidden from us. The viewer is simply given everything that can be known.