PG! But it's so weird that you think you are watching something wildly offensive. It's pretty brutal in a weird way. Okay, nothing is really shown on screen, but there are things, guys. Things. Things that I can't explain. They are all there. There is torture and discussions of rape. Two people sleep together, but you don't really see much. It's just all there, but without actually being on screen, it's PG. This is what I'm talking about. Also, you know how I complain about "R" just being the MPAA term for "Good movie". I'm so used to this that it is weird to see it actually reflect the content of the film. PG.
DIRECTOR: Peter Weir
FILMSTRUCK IS DEAD! IT'S DEAD AND IT'S NEVER COMING BACK (as FilmStruck. I heard that Criterion streaming is coming)! BUT IT IS NEVER COMING BACK AND I HAD TO WATCH PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK BEFORE IT WENT AWAY! BUT NOW IT'S GONE AND I'M DEAD INSIDE! Before it went away and left me alone, I knew I finally had to knock out Picnic at Hanging Rock. I've almost watched this movie a dozen times. My wife watched the show and I intentionally avoided it because I insisted on watching the film first. The great thing, and 10% of me is sarcastic about this, is that I have no idea what to say about this movie.
The opening title card, giving the setting and the background, is haunting. I can't help but call back (forward) to stuff like The Blair Witch Project. It's disturbing. I don't know what it is about white text on a black background that gets my blood pressure all high. But then the movie slows way down. Peter Weir sets an absolutely bizarre setting. Part of this seems like it could be real. I read up on it. The novel the movie is based on is fake, but it presents itself like The Blair Witch Project as something that could be real. But then it seems to take the tone of a Victorian novel. A comedy of manners, perhaps? There are fancy ladies in a fancy school doing fancy fancy school things. They recite poetry and giggle about skipping in circles. So what you have is this title card swearing that there's an unsolved mystery about missing girls and then fancy fancy school things. It's this really weird juxtaposition. and I like it. Weir doesn't let me know what to prepare for. I didn't know that I had to prepare for different genres of film. I act differently. I apparently watch differently. And Weir has me all over the place. Because the thing is, there is something sinister going on at the school. The Sara story? What on Earth? I don't think I've seen a movie with a completely disparate B-plot. But from moment one with Sara, we know that this world is absolutely cruel and dark. I read up on it. I watched that story intently. I don't think I completely get it still. I think Sara is there to talk about how cruel people are and how life doesn't have equal value. Wait! Did I just figure it out? There's Sara, who is alive and well and wildly unhappy because her life is terrible and she's treated terribly. Then there are these girls, who are happy and rich and adored and they disappear. People lose their minds. But poor Sara and her story! She's seen as a burden on everyone.
There's something almost hallucinatory about the whole experience. There are times where the movie is completely grounded in reality. At least, the reality that these characters live in stays consistently weird, for the most part. But then we get pieces of what happened to the girls. Nothing supernatural happens in the movie outright. But the movie screams to be something larger than life and bizarre. There are these shots of the rock that, coupled with the music, scream that something absolutely haunting is happening at Hanging Rock. There are these scenes of people sprawled across the rock, reaching up. For one of them, it is implied that it is because of heat exhaustion that he cannot climb any higher. The second, though, really screams that there is a supernatural force stopping him from going any farther. I can't help but think that this moment looks just a hint goofy. I know. I'm into art and interpretation and I should be above these things. But I'm also a guy who laughs at fart jokes more than I should. I can look at that scene and be simultaneously enraptured by the almost demonic force that is taking over the visitors of Hanging Rock and the fact that someone looks like they are just scootching on some rock. Sue me.
The shift of focus is a lot to take in. It is all over the place. When I read the description on FilmStruck, it talked about how this disappearance affected the people of the town. That is the most accurate and least accurate summary of this film. It is about that. No doubt. But that description just seems to be somehow off. It is about the disappearance, but this disappearance is a cancer in the truest sense of the metaphor. (Can I even say that?) Cancer isn't present. It is violent, but it isn't sudden. Within this environment, we see people's true colors come out. Mostly this is terrible. Mrs. Appleyard's story is fascinating. I know that this is spinning out of Sara's narrative, but Appleyard becomes a full on psycho. The disappearance of these girls takes such a unique toll on her. I don't know if Weir is commenting on the power of the dollar, but Appleyard becomes Scrooge. She sees these girls as costing her money. There's one moment in the plot when one of the girls returns and she's actually disappointed because it reminds the public that these girls had disappeared while in her charge. By the end, I don't even know what has happened to her. She becomes this almost arch-villain in a movie that I didn't even know could have an arch-villain. It's not even really a character change. There is always this implication that this was part of her character, but it has bubbled to the surface. Also, the girls that weren't lost? What's up with them? One of the girls who returns goes to leave with her family and there's this really dark shunning that happens. I really like the reaction. It amps up the issue pretty quickly. But it is striking, mainly because the teacher joins in before panning over to Sara, who is being causally tortured against a wall. I know all of this is spoilers, but I am not doing this justice, so I don't feel required to bold any of this to stand out. Nothing in this movie really makes sense except when watching it. And even then, it only makes a very unique, ephemeral sense. Slightly removed from watching it is still baffling to me what this movie is about. It seems like a fever dream in many ways. And it is a chill fever dream. I've watched movies that have baffled me and blew up my senses. There's a couple of moments that have Easy Rider type elements, but really it is a quiet study that is almost meant to drive you insane. I can't think of another movie that is quite like Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Last thought: I don't know if anyone else found odd tonal ties to Lord of the Flies. It isn't a perfect comparison, but the boarding school elements with the grown up themes behind it. I also, and I'm ashamed of this comparison, can't help but compare Edith to Piggy. No one really treats Edith all that nicely, but she's tagging along to all of the situations. She overreacts and is shunned from the group. I mean, that saves her in the end, but it is interesting.
This movie hides a lot behind the veil. If you wanted to watch a movie about subverting expectations, Picnic at Hanging Rock is it. It gives you absolutely nothing in terms of firm answers, but rather just more questions and a feeling of unease. I'm glad I caught this before FilmStruck disappeared. I don't know if I'd watch the TV show any time soon, but that's just because I got what I needed out of this.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.