Tuesday, March 11, 2014

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Peter Weir, 1975, Australia)

British colonialism fades into obscurity like three schoolgirls, their flesh and blood evaporating like the scintillation of a daydream. Peter Weir’s oblique narrative becomes transcendental and dangerous in its mystic rhythms, a magnetic force of frenetic urgency that subsumes all living creatures.

Appleyard College is an English boarding school on the boundary of the Australian Outback, a bastion of civilization taming the primitive wild, where the future meets the rock of ageless past. Apropos for a country whose empire spread like an infection, destroying and converting that which it didn't understand into tempestuous Victorian principles. But Hanging Rock’s basalt pillars are guardians of time, sentinels that have withstood a million storms and will outlast the invaders…and the human race. On Valentine’s Day, a picnic at this monolith turns seemingly to tragedy when three students and a teacher disappear and only one is found alive, her elusive memory a figment of trauma where truth and imagination become inseparable. Though the film invokes police procedural, the story is not about the facts concerning the disappearances but in the aftermath, the effects upon Mrs. Applegate and her students, the police, the witnesses, and the community at large.

The mystery is never explained so Weir is able to focus upon the people: Mrs. Appleyard and her inability to cope with change, Sara and her lesbian infatuation with Miranda (one of the girls who never returns), and Michael an innocent witness who becomes obsessed with visions of the beautiful Miranda. This event has profoundly altered their lives while it’s just another sensationalist exercise in journalistic fashion for the rest of the world, human lives reprinted in ink and cheap paper. The story could be a masquerade of the young woman’s role in Victorian society, their sexuality repressed beneath binding corsets, behavior redacted to exclude natural impulses. Weir shows the girls shedding shoes and clothing, possibly morphing into or merging with the world around them, leaving behind a static life of disregard. It is also a tragedy of class distinction leading to self-destruction, as Sara jumps to her death because her benefactor fails to pay the required fee for the school, already suffering the loss of her best friend.

Mrs. Appleyard’s biological clock stops ticking at Hanging Rock, not from some strange magnetic pulse but from blunt force trauma.

Final Cut: (A)