The Horror of Enigma

Picnic at Hanging Rock

When I was nine or so, I saw a movie on HBO at a neighbor’s house. It was slow, had strange music, dealt with a picnic at some desert locale, and haunted me for years. In college, an English and film professor described the scariest movie he’d ever seen. It sounded awfully familiar. My roommate at the time recalled seeing the same movie as a child in a hotel room in Scotland. So we began a long journey to find a video copy of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Fortunately, the film about schoolgirls disappearing at a rather phallic volcanic monument is no longer so difficult to track down: Weir’s puzzling, erotic, beautiful, and disturbing 1975 movie was finally released widely in 1998 on video and DVD.

On Valentine’s Day 1900, a group of students from the all-girls Appleyard College embark for a picnic at the million-year-old Rock, which stops watches at noon (no explanation offered) and seems to harbor some grudge against humankind. Four girls exploring the geologic phenomenon act increasingly dazed, and when three of them walk slowly higher, the fourth screams. It’s one of the oddest and most frightening outbursts in film.

The screamer runs down the Rock and passes one of the school’s teachers, who, strangely enough, has shed much of her clothing. The instructor, and the three girls, cannot be found. If they were murdered, or fell, where are the bodies? How could four people disappear without a trace?

When one of the girls is found days later, barely alive, she gives no clues. Her injuries are strange, not at all consistent with someone who’d been crawling on rocks with bare hands and feet, and she’s missing her corset, but otherwise, the examiner assures, the girl is “quite” — long pause — “intact.”

Dead ends lead to weighty, dumb questions. Were the girls and teacher taken by God? Nature? Did the upright Rock steal the budding women to spare them from impurity? Did they know they were headed to something more profound than poetry lessons? The script, wisely, never even raises these issues, but in the absence of evidence of foul play or accident, what are we left with?

The central mystery drives Picnic, but the film is filled out with characters’ different reactions to the disappearances. The uptight, proud Mrs. Appleyard frets how the publicity will hurt her school’s reputation and enrollment. The stuffy young man who followed the girls is filled with guilt, feeling somehow responsible. A young student — denied the pleasure of the picnic — pines for her lost Miranda. And the schoolgirls are vicious instead of happy when the found peer visits a class.

Weir’s second film, filled with the sense of being vaguely alone in, and at odds with, one’s surroundings, presages nearly all his later work. From cop John Book hiding in an Amish community Witness to Jeff Bridges’ coolly removed plane-crash victim in Fearless, Weir seems fascinated by outsiders and their impact on the people around them.

But perhaps the best comparison is a more recent Weir classic: Just as Truman Burbank leaves his safe, protected television world for a much harsher and uncertain future in 1998’s also-eerily-sunny The Truman Show, so the girls of Appleyard College are swallowed by the earth. Anything beyond that is conjecture.

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