Thursday, 19 January 2012

Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1979)

 Fig. 1. Picnic at Hanging Rock poster.

“Horror need not always be a long-fanged gentleman in evening clothes or a dismembered corpse or a doctor who keeps a brain in his gold fish bowl. It may be a warm sunny day. the innocence of girlhood and hints of unexplored sexuality that combine to produce a euphoria so intense it becomes transporting, a state beyond life or death. Such horror is unspeakable not because it is gruesome but because it remains outside the realm of things that can be easily defined or explained in conventional ways.” (Canby, 1979). Picnic at Hanging Rock strategically defies any and all attempts to classify it; it blends elements of horror, mystery, science fiction, period drama and any other genre it can get its hands on. Set in a turn-of-the-century Australian boarding school for young ladies, three of said young ladies and one of their teachers go missing under mysterious circumstances on a field trip to Hanging Rock.

Fig. 2. Miranda still.

The film uses a variety of visual motifs, in particular colour. The film is exceedingly yellow, often shot so saturated that in exterior scenes the sky is completely whited out. The heavy use of yellow light is not something people experience regularly, thus making the otherwise innocuous locales seem eerie and unnatural. Additionally, in many scenes there are looming rocks and a thick canopy of trees, making the atmosphere oppressive and threatening.

Fig. 3. Miranda et al. still.

Furthermore, the fact that the film is set in Australia creates an almost unnoticeable effect in non-Australian audiences; the flora is somehow alien, not quite conforming to the expectations of one who has only experienced American or European plant life. While obviously not a design decision, it nevertheless has an effect. In fact, the very Australian-ness is a major part of the story; the film “employs two of the hallmarks of modern Australian films: beautiful cinematography and stories about the chasm between settlers from Europe and the mysteries of their ancient new home.” (Ebert, 1998). Australia is a largely untamed place, with its own rich history that has been largely displaced by settlers. The film could thus be interpreted as a ‘nature strikes back’ tale.

The film refuses to explain precisely what happened at Hanging Rock, instead allowing the viewer to come up with a plethora of explanations of their own. “We are so used to leaving a movie theater with a sense of certainty about what befell all the characters that this sort of ambiguity is unsettling.” (Berardinelli, 2006).

Illustration List
Fig. 1. Weir, P. (1979) Picnic at Hanging Rock poster. (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)
Fig. 2. Weir, P. (1979). Miranda still. (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)
Fig. 3. Weir, P. (1979). Miranda et al. still. (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)

Canby, V. (1979). New York Times. (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)
Ebert, R. (1998). (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)
Berardinelli, J. (2006). (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)

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