Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

A Frustrating Mystery

After watching Peter Weir’s disconcerting Picnic at Hanging Rock, our initial thoughts might turn to the resolution. More precisely, we might focus on the lack of resolution. In an ordinary school event, three girls and a teacher seem to disappear from the face of the earth. Revealed in the first half of the film, it creates an engrossing mystery to unfold. Despite us being given what appear to be clues (or at least the impression of clues), the trail ultimately yields nothing. There remains a disturbing lack of clarity regarding the whereabouts of the missing characters.

Clearly, there is much controversy regarding the lack of intentional resolution. In an interview, it was revealed how one angry distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen while the industry was watching the film. He felt he had wasted two hours of his life on a puzzle that had no answer and became his source of dissatisfaction. Many critics and audiences agree with the perspective. In an attempt to convey its displeasure, People magazine adopted a sarcastic tone. They called the film “unsatisfying” and described director Weir as “that’s Weir, like weird.”

It’s almost hard to watch Picnic at Hanging Rock for the first time without realizing its reputation for having a confusing resolution. After almost forty years after the premiere, the information may eliminate the possibility of feeling annoyed that the film may cause someone to watch it blindly for many audiences. However, the frustration becomes an important aspect of the experience and one of its best qualities; uncomfortable and thought-provoking how there are secrets the film purposely hides from us.

For some viewers, the film’s conclusion may be disappointing because it leaves many issues unresolved. However, it is precisely the uncertainty that adds to the appeal and provocative quality of the film. It forces us to think about the characters’ motivations and speculate about what will happen next for them.

Picnic at Hanging Rock debuted in 1975; it was a turning point in Weir’s career. After the strange success of The Cars That Ate Paris the previous year, the film cemented its position as an important director. With its unique and autonomous voice, the film defined the emerging Australian New Wave cinema trend. Weir’s win would open the door to a blossoming career in Hollywood. Later, he directed a number of famous films, such as The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Witness, Gallipoli, and other films. Both literally and figuratively, a recurring theme throughout the film is the idea of a journey. The protagonist goes on an external journey. Ultimately, it takes them to a higher level of self-discovery. Weir is best known for his enthralling film secrets and constant unpredictability. Consciously, he stated how he made the decision when he said, “I really like leaving behind a movie that keeps going through your mind.” Weir forces the audience to actively participate in the film by leaving things unresolved; he keeps them thinking about the characters’ intentions and possible outcomes long after the credits roll.

Picnic at Hanging Rock takes viewers into the heart of an eventful Valentine’s Day in downtown Victoria, 1900. It has received praise for its faithfulness to Joan Lindsay’s engrossing 1967 novel of the same title. The narrative takes place at Appleyard College—a leading institution of higher education for young women. Amid busy schedules and expectations, four schoolgirls are looking for a little adventure. Miranda is a girl who has an otherworldly aura and an ethereal wisp. Irma is a stunning beauty with an extraordinary presence. Marion is smart as a button and full of wisdom. Lastly, Edith often annoyed the people around her with her incessant nagging and whining.

Lured by the seduction of a forbidden discovery, the four young people run away from the professor and his fellow students. Their target is the massive and enigmatic Hanging Rock—a volcanic monolith. They are warned about the dual nature of the stone by their strict and discipline-focused headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard described it as a “geological wonder” and “extremely dangerous” for anyone to approach too closely. Ignoring the warnings, the girls continue to explore the green surroundings of Hanging Rock.

When Edith is the only one left, the perfect picnic turns scary. With her cries echoing throughout the peace, she was overcome with madness. Therefore, she was unable to talk about what happened under the shelter of the stone. Miss McCraw (the middle-aged math teacher accompanying the picnic) disappears without a trace; it adds to the growing horror. When Irma is found alive after days of desperate searching, there is a glimmer of hope. However, the young woman was completely traumatized and did not remember anything about her experience. Miss McCraw, Miranda, and Marion are lost in the mystery of Hanging Rock and are never seen again. After their disappearance, almost everyone affected by the events of that terrible day experienced a series of disasters and torments—both large and small.

Unveiling the Secrets

From the first scene, Picnic at Hanging Rock defines itself as a drama revolving around the act of staring both literally and figuratively. Instead of just showing school children, the opening scene shows us (the audience) as spies peering through the camera lens into their private world, namely a toilet—usually forbidden. The film’s examination of the conflict between societal expectations and the impulses of desire is introduced in the first act. The oppressive environment at Appleyard requires that young women’s bodies be hidden and invisible. They didn’t feel truly free until they arrived at Hanging Rock. As a symbolic sign of revealing themselves, the girls took off their hats, gloves, and even lowered their stockings. At one point, Irma even ditches her corset, and Miss McCraw is last seen wearing only bloomers. When they remove the restraints imposed on her, it looks like a slow-motion striptease.

However, the film does more than just voyeurism in its first moments. The expansive views of the opening sequence allude to the feeling of being looked at more deeply. Hanging Rock actually looks like a large, watchful eye and God watching over the characters from above. Subtly, the film gives the impression of how the huge stone structure is looking down at the protagonist and also at us (even though we see the character looking up). It leads to a multi-layered investigation of the gaze that includes the vast and unknown forces that may be watching over us as well as the cultural influences shaping the way women are viewed.

A World of Hidden Longing

With a setting evocative of a Victorian glasshouse, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film played with light fetishism. Everything shows a world of suppressed longing from the abundance of stockings and gloves to the beautiful flowers always held by the girls and the almost obsessive attention to corsets. Even for women, girls’ developing sexuality is also a source of intrigue.

While the original novel took a more restrained approach and concentrated on the social conventions of the time and the progressive decay, the film is an in-depth investigation of the underlying tensions. The sensory experience, the intense combination of pleasure, and danger accompanying the girls’ bodily awakenings seems to be of particular interest to Weir. His camera focuses on every detail and shows the level of restraint symbolized by the corset by pulling back the curtains and lifting the petticoat.

By highlighting the senses, the film shows images of brave women. Excited by the casual Valentine’s Day activities and tantalizing rumors of wild paganism surrounding Hanging Rock, they long to escape their secluded lives and enter the world of adult sexuality. It’s an exciting but dangerous journey that will take them to a destination they’ve long wanted to visit (despite Edith’s fear or unpreparedness for the change). Despite an individual being unable to return to her youthful innocence, the irrevocability of character change is emphasized throughout the film.

Subtly, the film implies how the girls must leave behind the close relationships of their youth to continue their quest. Miranda gently warns Sara in the scene: “You have to learn to love someone other than me, Sara.” It has a deeper meaning than “I won’t be here for a long time.” Apart from Sara later seeing it as evidence of Miranda’s premonition of her absence, it can also be seen as a sign of Miranda’s own “departure”. Rather than physically leaving school, the departure is about getting out of the comfort zone of their close friendship and exploring newness never specifically identified in the film. However, it is a deeper and more spiritual connection. Visibly, Miranda is ready to embrace an uncertain future; a serene smile on her face and her eyes fixated on Hanging Rock.

Although the stone seems to silently whisper about sexuality to many girls, it offers an underlying promise of freedom from their limited existence. However, the stone has the same meaning as a metaphor for an older character. The fact that Miss McCraw claims the rock is “quite young, geologically speaking” (despite its apparent age and majesty) is surprising because it alludes to her own latent aspirations. The stone represents the possibility of sexual awakening for her—a force similar to lava “forced up from below” overturns the strict order in her life.

Likewise, the stone clearly has masculine qualities for Mrs. Appleyard is loud and controlling. The formidable form and “rattlesnake” are seen by her as phallic emblems indicating dangerous and taboo masculinity. Her fear of sexuality and the threat it poses to her environment is strongly reflected in her point of view.

However, the meaning of the stone is not limited. Each sign of masculine authority has a contrasting element alluding to feminine sensuality. The cavities and crevices encircling the granite form begin to resemble female genitalia. In fact, Miranda hilariously exemplifies the idea at one point; she blends the boundaries between exploration and her growing knowledge of her own body when she playfully climbs on her classmate’s back and emerges from a crevice like a lizard. The final shot of the girls shows them passing through the tiniest gap; it is also seen as a metaphor for their transition into women. Inside the stone, bodily changes reflect the secrets they seek.

The Meaning of Hanging Rock

There is no clear interpretation of the rock in Picnic at Hanging Rock. It functions as a mirror and reflects back the viewers’ desires and fears. Weir offers an eerie soundtrack to those viewing the world through the prism of Lovecraftian cosmic terror. A menacing melody sounds in the background and is broken by terrifying cries and screams. In fact, he uses surprising contrast; he switches between serene rock scenes and scary scenes from horror films: a shiny knife slicing through a heart-shaped Valentine’s Day cake. Beneath the rock face, the brutal encroachment of the rural picnic site suggests a possible darkness may be lurking.

On the other hand, Weir highlights the sense of violation for those seeing the stone as a representation of the colonial “other.” Continuously, she draws our attention to the rise of unconventional women through conversational and visual phrases like “Where are they going?” “Without shoes?” It draws attention to the strange actions of the girls as they undress and move in an almost trance-like manner. It seems that the rock is not only an exotic and sacred place but attracts them with its seductive danger.

In fact, Miranda is a cipher as strong as a rock; it serves as the film’s most visible blank canvas—a surface onto which individuals project their desires and stories. For almost all the characters, she is an interesting puzzle and a source of imagination.

Experienced and indulgent, Mademoiselle de Poitiers saw in Miranda an airy beauty. Similar to the angels painted by Botticelli, the French mistress can’t help but notice a touch of sensuality; it may be a subconscious recognition of a deeper attraction. When Miranda crossed her mind the image of Venus (the Roman goddess of love and desire) appeared in her head, she reflected the work of art she thought was so beautiful.

Personified in Michael Fitzhubert (a young man filled with love); Victoria’s idealization of women is personified in herself. According to him, Miranda is a more alluring fantasy than a real woman. His lack of availability contributes to his pathetic romanticism fostering his vain fantasies. Miranda is shown in slow-motion photos glowing and dreamy; it captures an otherworldly beauty. The final scene of the dreamlike scene shows a swan and a bird usually associated with grace, purity, and unattainable perfection; it glides over the river gracefully. The image serves as an ideal metaphor for Michael’s impression of Miranda.

At first, Picnic at Hanging Rock seems like a story of people expressing their desires. It is shown that the rock becomes a blank canvas for their aspirations. It expresses the deepest desires of each individual giving it its own meaning. Something similar also happens with it projecting its desires onto Miranda—a mysterious figure seems to hold the secret of its happiness.

However, the film does more than just show the predictions. In the process, the film itself takes an active role. It invites the audience to participate in their own imagination by not offering firm solutions or clear conclusions. The film’s ambiguity turns into a mirror reflecting back our own hopes and fears.

Encouraging Imagination

The lack of resolution was a deliberate decision. It encourages us to acknowledge the complexity of human experience by refusing to draw neat conclusions or settle on any one reality. We are left to ponder our own interpretations and unanswered questions—just as the people in the film are left imprisoned in their own imaginations. Although the discomfort can be scary, it also forces us to consider the stories we tell about ourselves. Perhaps, it forces us to face certain unpleasant realities we don’t like.

In full, the emphasis on the open structure of the film leads us to endless famous (or perhaps infamous) things. The film’s unclear ending serves as a microcosm of its entirety. We feel dissatisfied and unsure because Weir refuses to provide a clear solution. However, the uncertainty actually has an impact on the film. It forces us to go further into the narrative, explore its meaning, and formulate our own interpretations.

The film opens with a quiet voice (presumably Miranda’s voice) whispering a quote from Edgar Allan Poe. Although slightly modified, the statement summarizes the main tension of the film brilliantly: “What we see or what appears to us is only a dream, a dream within a dream.” The first line of the quote, “What we saw,” refers to the girls themselves as keen voyeuristic observers and hoping to discover the mystery hidden within the monolithic stone. In contrast, the final line, “What we see,” describes how the women appear to a group of people watching them all the time. The people are the ever-present Michael, the stern coachman Albert, Mrs. Appleyard was careful, and even Doctor McKenzie tested the girls again to ensure their “integrity.” To each viewer, the girls seem like distinct entities; they are just projection objects unconsciously projecting their hidden desires and fears. Remarkably, Miranda’s misquotation highlights the film’s examination of the blurred boundaries between reality and imagination and heightens the story’s overall sense of unreality.

Unfulfilled Desires and the Power of Fiction

In his 1907 talk Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming, Sigmund Freud explored the fascinating relationship between adult desires, childhood play, and the influence of fiction. He argues how as we get older; society puts pressure on us to surrender to the magical world of childhood play. However, the human tendency to fantasize has not disappeared. It becomes a more personal daydreaming activity when we give in to unfulfilled hopes and dreams in our daily lives. However, there is a bit of guilt attached to the private pleasures—as if the desires were inappropriate or even immoral.

Furthermore, Freud presents the idea of fiction as a liberating influence. He says how the value of a story lies in its ability to offer us a socially acceptable and safe environment to explore our repressed urges. By implicitly convincing us that the often “perverse and exciting” aspects of the story are not our own imagination but the artist’s, the writer (or filmmaker) acts as mediator. For Freud, it gives us the freedom to “enjoy our own daydreams without self-reproach or shame.” The made-up universe turns into a stage where our secret desires come true and engrosses us in the story and offers a cathartic release or “joy.”

Then, the important question Freud asked was, “But what happens if we are not given freedom?” The question opens up the possibility of investigating possible outcomes if fiction is unable to provide the solution. We are still thinking about the consequences of unfulfilled desires and the possible psychological tension that may result if the story does not provide a safe environment for examination and release.

Intentionally, Weir creates an atmosphere of tension filled with forbidden desire in the opening act. Academics have drawn attention to early films flirting with a soft-core style. A row of schoolgirls wearing bloomers can be seen in the initial image bending over while pulling on the corset of the girl in front of them. A playful and languid tone emerges in the first twenty minutes gradually escalating into intense sexual tension. The horses galloping ahead, the shock of the tension-filled carriage ride, the shrill laughter, and finally the entrance to the picnic itself all strike the viewer with provocative images. Here, love poetry is performed; a girl strokes another person’s hair. Up close, we can see flies gathering on a luxurious, half-eaten cake.

However, Weir didn’t end there. He indulges the fantasies of a wide spectrum of viewers. Gradually, gothic horror fans are given hints about the girls’ possible fates and may include rape, murder, or perhaps abduction by extra-terrestrials. Curious readers of paranormal novels might think the women are being carried away by a mysterious force. Sometimes, colonial melodramas use the metaphor of the “Aboriginal other” stealing from the colonizers and to address concerns about colonization. Additionally, the film also suggests a heavenly rapture for those wanting a more spiritual explanation.

However, the long build-up is only meant as a cruel tease. The conclusion of the film leaves the audience with no unanswered questions. Beautifully, the options are all covered. Therefore, viewers are unable to find closure. By drawing on Freudian theory as inspiration, Weir failed to deliver a “creative bargain” and it was an unwritten agreement between artist and audience to provide some kind of release. Like the characters in the film, we are never truly satisfied and never given a happy ending.

The Impact on the Characters and Audience

In the film, one of the most famous scenes features the mysterious character Irma preparing to say goodbye to her students after returning from an unknown place. Her bright red robe and hat contrast sharply with the calm colors of her school clothes. It is a visual cue, a whisper of secret information, a beacon identifying oneself as an individual who has crossed the barrier and returned. However, she has an important secret hidden. Other women still can’t get the insight into the secrets they so desperately desire.

Entering the spacious gymnasium, Irma saw a sea of teenage girls doing pointless sports while wearing bloomers and thick stockings. Their movements lack vitality and are in stark contrast to the lively life that emerges within them when they meet Irma. The girls’ previously apathetic attitude suddenly and surprisingly turned into an angry mob; they grabbed Irma and shouted, “Tell us! Irma, tell us! You know what happened! Tell us!” The women were going crazy as the combination of fear, jealousy, and hunger intensified; it caused the scenario to get worse until it almost became chaos.

Identifying the growing panic as a “hyena cry of hysteria” (as Shirley Jackson’s book put it), Mademoiselle de Poitiers intervened. Her strong character saves Irma from the clutches of her helpless students. The scene shows the scary effect the film has on the audience. The audience was just as frustrated as the girls. We want to know the real story and what Irma is hiding. Like Irma, the film gives seductive hints but her mouth is very tight. The kidnapping of the girls has caused them to be locked up for weeks and driven them to be immersed in nightmares, strange theories, and terrifying possibilities. Now, they are trapped in their own suffering and are unlikely to find relief or reprieve after Irma’s departure.

Sara expressed emotions following the disappearance of Hanging Rock throughout her film-watching experience. She says how Miranda has secret understandings and hides information that other women don’t have. Picnic at Hanging Rock gives the audience the impression of being in the midst of mystery and stupidity. We as viewers are left to grapple with the unknown and like the people in the film are always haunted by unresolved issues.

Confronting Our Own Imagination

Because the film offers no clear resolution, it makes us confront an unpleasant reality: our own imagination. Without a clear solution, it turns into a mirror reflecting back our fears and desires we have created for ourselves. Any gloomy, unsettling, or even sensual scenario seeping into our consciousness is an undeniable manifestation of our inner landscape. There is no redemption offered by the film, the narrative, or even the mysterious Miranda herself. They make us responsible for the stories we create in our minds. We are forced to face the unpleasant reality because there is no way out in the film; we have to be responsible for the pictures.

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