Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock shows the fragility of civilisation. Both the film and Joan Lindsay’s eponymous novel (1967), on which the film is based, suggest that beneath the thin veneer of civilisation in general, and the British civilisation in particular, there exists a volcano of emotions and irrational urges, ready to erupt any time.
The film starts ominously with an image of the Hanging Rock, a volcanic formation which towers above the pastoral landscape in the vicinity of Melbourne, in the state of Victoria. On Saturday, 14 February 1900, St Valentine’s Day, a group of excited girls is leaving the Appleyard College for a picnic at the rock which is already a tourist attraction. Victoria is at that time still a British colony, just before it becomes part of the Commonwealth of Australia, a federation of all colonies on mainland Australia and Tasmania which is inaugurated on 1 January 1901.
By leaving the college, the girls are venturing into the Australian wilderness where their Britishness will be confronted with the unknown and the primeval, both in nature and in themselves. They live in the best of all possible worlds, in the age of steam and steel, in a colony which is part of the mighty British empire. What can possibly go wrong?
“The dark side of this faith in progress and British civilisation was the fear of the primitive or the elemental, whether in nature or in human beings”, writes Beverley Kingston in The Oxford History of Australia. Australians were aware that they lived at the frontiers of civilisation. Nature in Australia is unforgiving – life was a constant struggle for the colonials, with men and women being exposed to oppressive heat, venomous snakes, obnoxious insects, bushfires, floods, draughts, back-breaking work on the land and the risk of being lost in the forest. Unlike England, Australia was a frontier country, a mysterious place “where anything can happen”.
To go for a picnic in the bush is therefore a risky enterprise, especially when the place is dangerous both in the physical and metaphysical sense. Lindsay describes the rock as a “living monster”. Weir uses sound, music and unusual camera angles to show the rock as a mysterious and threatening place. The Victorian propriety and prudishness, embodied in the institution of the English picnic, are severely tested in an environment entirely alien to civilisation. Nature awakens primeval and atavistic feelings in those susceptible to metaphysical emotions.
In many cultures, mountains and rocks are considered as sacred places. Volcanic outcrops are particularly suitable to be treated as such because of their connection with the depths of the earth. As the Hanging Rock was formed by molten lava that once erupted from beneath the earth, it now has the power to free human emotions from the bondage of reason and reveal that what is hidden in human psyche. The rock is a place of revelation of timeless truths to those who are elected to receive them. One must be prepared to abandon the Cartesian world of Nature arranged according to mathematical formulas, of linear time, uniform space and natural causality. The rock is the “geographical manifestation of the divine”, “axis mundi, rooted deeply in the netherworld” (Diana L. Eck).
In the novel and in the film, the first sign of the rock’s magical powers is that the watches stop exactly at midday. Then everyone becomes sleepy and melancholic. The oneiric atmosphere of the picnic is suggested by the slow movement of the camera, showing one dreamy face after another.
The film starts with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem A dream within a dream, “All that we see or seem Is but a dream within a dream”, and ends with the scene showing the girls ascending the rock, in slow motion, frame by frame.
The culmination of the story is the disappearance of three girls whom we see entering the narrow opening among the boulders. The fourth girl is left behind as she is immune to the magical powers of the rock. She is grounded firmly in the material world, unable to see the unseen and to touch the non-tangible. Only those elected will receive revelation; the fourth girl is barred from the contact with the divine because she is fat, ugly and stupid, and too attached to the world of ordinary matters. For her, the rock has nothing mysterious “It’s nasty here; I’ve never thought it would be so nasty or I wouldn’t have come”.
Strangely enough, the rock is also irresistible to old spinster Miss McCraw who teaches mathematics at the college and lives in the “world of pure uncluttered reason”. At one moment she reads a treatise on mathematics and at another one she ascends the rock with no skirt and only in her “pantalons”. A knowledge of arithmetic does not help in the bush, observes one of the novel’s characters. McCraw’s “masculine intellect” could not protect her from the powers of emotions. “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing” (Pascal).
The mystical union with the sacred can only occur when those called for such a union take off some of their clothes so the contact with the divine is unmediated by vestiges of civilisation. First, the girls take off their gloves, then their shoes and stockings which are the visible signs of their inhibitions. The most scandalous is that, when one of the girls is found after a week spent at the rock, she is without a corset.
Being unveils itself in its totality only to those willing to strip themselves of everyday habits and to take off the corset of civilisation that alienates them from nature.
From the very beginning, the matter of the girls’ disappearance has ecstatic and erotic overtones. The picnic takes place on St Valentine’s Day. The girls are excited because the excursion means for them an escape from the reglamented life and the “suffocating routine of the college”. Erotic tension abounds in the college. The girls are infatuated with each other and one of the teachers is also drawn into the world of homoerotic phantasy.
… for [the Mademoiselle] la petite Irma could do no wrong. The girl’s voluptuous little breasts, her dimples, full red lips, naughty black eyes and glossy black ringlets, were a continual source of aesthetic pleasure.
The girls are still virginal and innocent, which is emphasised by the whiteness of their dress, but their sexuality is about to be awaken. In the novel, Lindsey only hints at the girls’ budding sexuality while Weir shows the girls wandering among phallic boulders and vaginal caves.
Eros is shown as something alluring and mesmerising but also dangerous and threatening, with two girls and Miss McCraw remaining on the rock and never been found, presumably dead. It seems that Eros is close to Thanatos.
The girl who miraculously escaped death is no longer dressed in white but wears a red outfit when she appears in the college as a visitor. Her new dress suggests that she is a woman now. Her appearance triggers an outburst of teenage hysteria among the girls who want to know what happened on the rock.
And yet the rescued girl is unable to express what she experienced on the rock. Her experience transcends human understanding. The mysticism of love cannot be verbalised. It is part of ultimate reality which is hidden and can only be accessed outside of ordinary time and space, and where logic is suspended.
In the film, the sacralisation of love is the same as the sacralisation of nature. Weir states that “For me, the grand theme was Nature, and even the girls’ sexuality was as much a part of that as the lizard crawling across the top of the rock. They were part of the same whole”
The college is an outpost of British civilisation in an alien world of the antipodes. From the very beginnings, the colonists in Australia were aware that an enormous effort was required of them to domesticate this terra incognita.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is also the story of this struggle in an educational establishment for young colonial girls who are taught how to be British. And yet the college is already an anachronism in 1900. The Victorian era is about to end. The novel begins with the picnic on 14 February 1900 and ends with the death of the owner of the college, Mrs Appleyard, on 27 March 1900. The Australian colonies would become less British by forming a federation on 1 January 1901. Queen Victoria dies shortly after on 22 January 1901.
Mrs Appleyard epitomises Victorian virtues. She represents restraint, propriety, correct manners, self-reliance and unsentimental attitude towards the world. Her students are taught how to repress their feelings. She is a Victorian matron par excellence, meticulously dressed, and not unlike Queen Victoria herself. Like the queen, who lost her beloved husband Prince Consort Albert forty years before her own death, Mrs Appleyard is also in mourning for her late husband, Arthur.
…her high-piled greying pompadour and ample bosom, as rigidly controlled and disciplined as her private ambitions, the cameo portrait of her late husband flat on her respectable chest, the stately stranger looked precisely what the parents expected of an English Headmistress.
Mrs Appleyard’s role is to alienate her students from their natural inclinations. Her attitude to Nature is scientific. No contact with Nature is desirable unless it is mediated by scientific instruments. Nature in the college appears only as dead specimens of insects and plants in wooden cabinets.
She knew no more of nature than a scarecrow rigid on a broomstick above a field of waving corn. She who had lived so close to the little forest on the Bendigo Road had never felt the short wiry grass underfoot. Never walked between the straight shaggy stems of the stingybark trees. Never paused to savour the jubilant gusts of spring that carried the scent of wattle and eucalypt right into the front hall of the college.
Ironically, she walks on the grass after years of walking on asphalt, linoleum and carpets only in the moment before her death, when she throws herself into a precipice at Hanging Rock.
Even before her death, Mrs Appleyard was dead emotionally. She had failed to recognise that one cannot live by science alone. Both the novel and the film suggest that science kills what it examines. Conceptual knowledge of the world alienates us from the world’s true nature.
Picnic at Hanging Rock also deals with the problem of nascent nationalism in Australia. In 1900, Australia’s political character was about to change from being a collection of British colonies, separated by vast distances from each other, to an awkward entity which was the result of the fusion of Australian nationalism and British imperialism. Australia became a federation of British colonies within the British empire. This “fused identity between nation and Empire” (Paul Kelly) is represented in the novel and the film by the two main male characters – Michael, a recent immigrant from England, and Albert, a native-born coachman.
Initially, they are divided by their class, upbringing, garments, habits and language but they are gradually becoming mates to a degree verging on homoeroticism. Albert is a “currency lad”, a simple and decent young man whose character is as colorful as his language. Michael belongs to an ancient and illustrious family in Britain and therefore could be referred to as “sterling”. Michael is well-mannered and expresses himself in cultivated British English while Albert speaks with a broad Australian accent. He uses words such as “bloody” and phrases such as “can’t be more a midday”, “in donkey’s years”, “I’m buggered”, “what the hell for” and “you are a funny bugger”. Albert and Michael are becoming mates through a gradual process involving drinking wine from one battle, and Michael switching to vernacular expressions and dressing less formally.
The most dramatic change occurs at the Hanging Rock when Michael spends a night there in an attempt to find the lost girls and, in turn, has to be rescued by Albert. Michael undergoes the rite of passage at the rock. He becomes a true Australian mate by willing to risk his life to help others. He is initiated into the Australian nation in which nationality is an extension of mateship. Weir expressed the same idea in his later film Gallipoli which depicts a tragic campaign in the Dardanelles in 1915. The battle has since served as the foundation myth of Australia.
It may escape the viewer’s attention that Albert calls cooee when searching for Michael on the rock. The cry was once heard quite often in the bush. Geoffrey Blainey describes the cooee as “one of the first of the consciously nationalist calls […] perhaps the first national anthem”.
Picnic at Hanging Rock combines elements of mystery and history with metaphysical reflection. This is arguably the best Australian film, as interesting now as it was at the time of its creation.