Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I'd Give My Head To Know What Really Happened Up There


This is all you can know, all you can be told. When you get where I am, you will know the rest. 
-Sunny von B├╝low, Reversal of Fortune

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word. 
- Iago, Othello Act V, scene ii

Picnic At Hanging Rock presents a mystery that is never solved. On Valentine's Day 1900, three teenage girls from an upper class boarding school, along with one of their teachers, disappear during a day-trip to a local geological wonder. One of the girls reappears several days later with no memory of what happened. The other three are gone forever.  Bits of information begin to appear, which we try to piece together in an attempt to explain the events of that fateful day, but they are contradictory and frustrating.  The leads to any real resolution eventually run cold. The facts we are left with are flimsy and arbritrary. We can't make anything of them and we soon let go of any hope of solving the mystery.

Picnic At Hanging Rock uses this mystery to draw us into its world.  The urgency to find out what happened is so compelling that we don't realize how immersed we have become in its universe. Once we come to know that we will never know the answer, we are beyond caring. We have become deeply involved in the lives of everyone depicted.  The disappearance is a MacGuffin worthy of The Birds.

The opening scenes carefully depict a tightly buttoned world that has much bubbling below the surface.  The rigid formality of the girls' school is soon to unravel. The budding sexuality of the students will give way to tragedy and hysteria. The placid young Englishman (Dominic Guard) visiting his dim, aristocratic aunt and uncle, will lose his Victorian impassivity in a burst of passion and yearning.  The disapperance is a catalyst for all this. The way the bird attacks afford us a window into the complicated lives of Melanie Daniels and the burgers of Bodega Bay is comparable to the way the disappearances in this film enable us to have an intense identification with those left behind.



So often an unsolved mystery can be audience-baiting. One watches such films as Mulholland Drive or the series Twin Peaks, tantalized by the direction the clues to the various mysteries are leading. The clues to the mysteries of Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive are as inconclusive as the clues in Picnic At Hanging Rock, but I believe the audience feels a betrayal in the Lynch productions.  As we watch those works, we come to realize that not only are the clues red herrings, but the movies themselves are only about these red herrings. We are frustrated by all the work we are doing to bring it into some sort of order.  

The reason that Picnic at Hanging Rock is so powerful is not that the mystery is unsolved, but that the mystery becomes irrelevant. The honest emotion we share with the protagonists is the true gift of this film. By having us identify so closely with the characters' need to know, we penetrate their psyches.

The various components work beautifully to mesmerize and overwhelm us.

The first element to make an impression is the haunting pan flute score by Zamfir.  The music is odd and ancient sounding, reminiscent of the digeridoo.  The unresolved, yearning melodies parallel the story.

The costumes are another critical elements in the character studies. Michael's three piece suit and top hat in the sweltering February heat emphasize how he is trapped in his late Victorian world.  As he becomes obsessed with finding the girls, his dress becomes looser and more relaxed.  The white dresses of the girls give them the aura of the Botticelli angel that we hear Mlle. de Poitiers talking of.  We also know that under the dresses are the constricting girdles, one of which will be the 'clue' that ultimately tips the mystery into insolubility.

The gradual dishevelment of the helmet-like hairstyle of the terrifying Mrs. Appleyard (played, in a tour de force performance, by Rachel Roberts) does as much as anything to underline the unraveling of this Fury of a schoolmistress.


The film obsessively repeats images, each time having them loaded with more and more emotion.  The final glimpse of Miranda at the end brings home to us how the compounding of disparate clues has actually brought us to a profound emotional climax.

The mystery has revealed everything.