Monday, June 30, 2014

Picnic At Hanging Rock: One Does Not Speak Of Such Things

It’s easy to think of horror in terms of submerging yourself into insanity and fear and nightmare - I mean, I think it’s a good approach, like if you’re going to plumb something dark, really plumb it, you know? I’ve been looking for a lot of that lately, movies that just sort of jump off the precipice and plunge headlong to the bottom of whatever they’re dealing with. But there’s also something to be said for quiet, for subtlety, for something slower than the slowest burn, something closer akin to a smolder with the occasional spark. Something that works in tension expressed in the slightest gestures and resolutely refuses to provide closure. It’s a much more rarefied form of horror, perhaps, and one seen less in modern times, but I think it’s worth appreciating.

Picnic At Hanging Rock is barely a horror movie, but I think it belongs to the tradition (loosely construed) because it shares a lot of DNA with Stoker's Dracula, in that you're basically telling a story of repression and constraint with a component of the unknown at its center. What's shocking comes not just from the mystery itself, but also the way in which the mystery causes others to break with social norms in sudden, shocking ways

It’s Australia, the year is 1900, and we’re looking in on the students and staff at Mrs. Appleyard’s school for girls. First we meet Miranda, delicate and angelic and perhaps a little removed from the cares so many of us take for granted. She’s singing a song and brushing her hair and talking to Sarah. Sarah adores her quietly. There’s something there, between the two of them, but like so much in this world, it goes unspoken beneath layers and layers of what is proper and correct. Ladies learn certain things, speak a certain way, act a certain way, and no other. This is what they have come to school to learn. How to be ladies. There are others, but there are so many, and they’re getting ready for the annual ceremony in honor of St. Valentine and then some of the girls will be taken on an outing to nearby Hanging Rock. Ranks and rows of proper young ladies in white, neatly turned out, prim and composed, suppressing girlish giggles.

By the time the picnic is over, three students and one teacher will be missing, and nobody will be able to explain why.

This isn’t a scary movie, per se. The disappearance occurs without violence, there’s no sense of threat. It’s almost languid - one moment they’re here, the next they are not. The teacher is never actually seen to disappear, it’s something we discover after the fact. What gives this film the tension it has is the utter mystery surrounding the disappearance, and the way the disappearance affects the lives of those touched by it. We get all sorts of tantalizing hints as to what might have happened, some more plausible than others, but nothing is ever really resolved. Long stretches of polite, careful, mannered living, just containing repression, sometimes bursting into sudden, ugly reminders of what price this world exacts upon those who live in it. It is very much a movie about tension and control and isolation and the way the unexplainable disrupts all of that.

The girls are ethereal - living in this world of lace and flowers and petticoats and corsets and whispered gossip and dreams of an endless bliss. They are hothouse flowers, creatures of refinement and taste and manners and breeding, almost otherworldly in the ways they don't inhabit the same lives as the staff, the servants, the people tasked with holding up the scenery around their life at the school. It's a vision of Australia as yet another land to be tamed by English civilization (there’s exactly one indigenous person in the whole movie) and this is even made explicit when one of the girls says as they approach Hanging Rock, “(it has been) waiting here a million years...just for us”. The world is there for them and their amusement, why wouldn’t it be? Everything is there just for them. It's a white person's paradise, and they haven't yet realized that nature plays by its own set of rules. In fact, it’s that nature which ostensibly takes the girls. Nature is an impenetrable mystery here - sky, rocks, sun, caves, animals and insects, all claim what is theirs. The picnicking girls doze, the remnants of their Valentine's Day cake a sugary ruin overtaken by ants. Lizards crawl, birds soar and look on with an unfazed eye as people scream in anguish and frustration. The rock formations turn a blind eye to the people who sleep in their shade, and to the ones who scramble in their crevices looking for answers. These are people who are used to living with rules and rational explanations for the comfortable, privileged world they inhabit, and something mysterious, almost pagan seems to come over some of the girls, and off they go to explore the hidden mysteries of Hanging Rock. And nobody can account for that, and it tears some of them apart inside.

This is because at its heart, this story runs on repression. Lots and lots of repression. There is strict, tight control embodied in appearance and manner and custom, all of which unravels as the movie progresses. Miranda and Sarah possess the love that dare not speak its name, but manages to shout from the rooftops with every action, and it hardly matters because in this world, all love is the love that dare not speak its name. This is not a world of passion. This is a world of carefully considered word and deed and desires kept firmly in check. Discipline, rules, class differences, gender differences, the corsets the characters wear are figurative as well as literal, and it's important when it's discovered that one character returned without her corset, and when next seen out of bed is clothed almost entirely in red. It’s a miniature world observed in fine detail and glances and what goes unspoken, so when things do break loose, even though little of it is especially shocking by modern standards, it’s shocking within the confines of this world, the way a Henry James story or Bram Stoker story might be shocking. It's never resolved what happened on the rock - one moment there were four girls and a governess hiking up the rock, the next, two of the girls and the governess were gone forever. They wandered into mystery, as if they had been mere myth or dreams of another age the entire time.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

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