Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Picnic At Hanging Rock - New Thoughts (First Draft)

A century ago it was considered that reading certain literature or listening to certain music was 'unhealthy' and would induce 'neurasthenia' much as might the consumption of opium or absinthe. Sidney Sime's illustration The Reader is a case in point, as is Antoine Wiertz's La Liseuse des Romans, in which dissolute, ecstatic females on divans are depicted in transports by the words they are reading.

Reviewing Peter Weir's supernatural tour-de-force Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), I began to think the old patriarchs may have had a point. It is just impossible to think straight after even a third of this film, and that may be one of its innumerable subtexts which are threaded like arts & crafts needlework through what is superficially a ghost story.

The story only needs paraphrasing; the disappearance of two Australian schoolgirls and their guardian at the titular rock, an aboriginal holy place in Victoria. Yet as tenderly and insistently as an ardent lover's caresses, it brings to the surface conflicts of reason and unreason, class, desire, sexuality and mysticism.

Weir chooses to do this by conjuring a visual language as close to the symbolism of the film's timeframe (1900) as the cinema has ever seen, even more rich and knowing than that of Visconti's Death In Venice, another 1970s classic recalling the aesthetic ancestry of so much of that decade's cleverer art and craft.

There are nods towards, naturally, the pre-Raphaelites – the girls, closeted in their gilt-and-mahogany cage, are (mostly) swoony romantics, obsessed with death. All around are motifs of flowers, orchids, lilies. Sarah (Margaret Nelson) an orphan, is hopelessly in love with her roommate, the implausibly beautiful Miranda (Anne Lambert, who, equally implausibly, didn't have Hollywood on her doorstep after Rock).

Now, let's get out a fin-de-si`ecle checklist here. Unrequited passion, lesbianism and doom; check, check, check. There's more; white peacocks strut on the lawn of the boarding-school (whether this is a reference to William Sharp's eponymous 1902 poem is moot). In the famous scene where the party, in their skirts and puffball-shouldered blouses lolls in the dappling midday sun under the towering rock, twirling parasols and reading poetry and examining flora and fauna, brushing away flies and their own scrolling, tumbling hair, the social comment is amplified by the meticulously faithful replication of the painterly imagination in the France of the 1880s from Courbet to Lautrec and even to Seurat and Osbert. Drowsing, the girls resemble white feathers scattered among the vegetation.

This was fortuitous, for when Weir made the film in 1975, mysticism and Art Nouveau concerns still had cultural currency. So did progressive rock (itself an avatar of those earlier cultural currents) and it is doubtful whether any film has ever made better use of the vocabulary of prog than in Bruce Smeaton's contributions to a powerful and varied score. His doom-laden, downward-cascading minor-key chromatic piano theme as four of the party scale the rock are underpinned by unbearably poignant chords from one of 1975's instruments du jour, the mellotron, whose string and choir samples sound like no other item of musical kit before or since. Rumbles of almost inconceivable depth from a moog further heighten the tension. Now, you sense, there is no stopping the drama from unfolding, and it is not going to be pleasant. And it isn't – but, of course, we never find out what the climax is, much in the same way that Smeaton's tiny but devastating piece never seems to quite resolve on a single chord. Like the girls, hypnotically climbing the rock, we are drawn on by something occult, something unattainable, something to be forever yearned after. Check again.

The girls, it transpires, according to one of their number who returns, panic-stricken, to the party at the foot of the rock, were followed by a governess, the brilliantly purse-lipped Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray, aka Mrs Mangel out of Neighbours). She too, despite her spinsterish demeanour and love of science, was drawn in by whatever supernatural and Dionysian force the girls felt.

When the police and the beaters and the bloodhounds turn up to search the rock, the music has changed, the light has changed. Here is a duality worthy of Tristan und Isolde, and indeed that of self-obsessed, hermeneutic aestheticism full stop – the fancy that only those truly 'attuned' to the spirit world, to ecstasy and otherness can know liberation. In the opera, the music becomes truly chromatic and suggestive when the two lovers are alone at night in a realm only they can know; the rest of the time, when it concerns the world of day and other characters, it becomes foursquare and rhetorical. Similarly, the most elemental and mystical scenes are played outdoors in the sunshine, which makes them all the more frightening, whereas basic human drama is played out in dark interiors. In the original novel, time is an obsessive a leitmotif as a ticking clock; the film's stopping of the party's watches at midday and the monstrous tick-tock of the headmistress's study pendulum repeats this. Analogous, of course, to the ordered rationality of humanity, as opposed to the timeless state (redolent of Schopenhauer's non-being) that the girls find on the rock. This juxtaposition of the world of man and of nature can also be found in another classic of Australian fantasy of the 1970s, Patricia Wrightson's chilling children's book, The Nargun and the Stars (1974), in which the stones of the outback obtain otherworldly qualities.

It doesn't stop there. Michael (Dominic Guard), a rich young colonial gentleman, has seen the four girls and is bewitched by Miranda's beauty. At first Weir, more than Joan Lindsay's original book, suggests that he may have more to do with the disappearance than meets the eye; but his preoccupation with the mystery - and Miranda - soon turns to obsession with resolving it and finding her. The evanescent nymph becomes, in the vernacular of Romantics everywhere, synonymous with visions of a swan, to the time-honoured emblem of melancholy, the adagio of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto (indeed, the unpublished finale of Lindsay's novel, which reveals the secret, deals with mystical transmorphism, but I won't spoil it for you). The whole atmosphere is heavy with superheated neuroticism, fantasy and existential terror.

Weir never resorts to the filmic devices of cheap terror and horror; the camera never swirls crazily around the turrets and gables of the grotesque rock, even at the most unsettling and forbidding moments. Silences uncomfortably long in an Anglophone film in 1975 are commonplace. Decibel levels rarely rise above the middling. Making a film like this in this day and age and having it become an international hit is almost unthinkable.

Towards the end the film's blood pressure rises a little too far and melodrama threatens to shrilly break out – but it doesn't, despite Sarah's suicide at the prospect of being returned to the orphanage from whence she came. Weir – like most of the Australian New Wave – managed the not-inconsiderable feat of directing his actors to perform a written script as if it were improvised. The actresses playing the girls, despite the strangeness of the apparel and behaviour, are startlingly natural in their moods and comportment, both collectively and individually.

Class is an issue; gardeners and coachmen stand clasping their headgear before their betters at their heavy teak desks in rooms full of aspidistras and heavy furniture – but the relationship between Michael and his family's handyman Bert (John Jarrett) is complex, hinting at real friendship, and the latter's performance as a laconic larrikin foil to Michael's edgy fop is never allowed to slip into Ocker parody. There is also the strong hint that he is Sarah's long-lost brother, revealed as the otherwise earthy Bert recounts to Michael a dream he had of her on the eve of her suicide. Anne Lambert is suitably wafty as Miranda, Helen Morse by turns vulnerable and urgent as the girls' doting young French mistress. In fact there isn't a weak performance to be seen. It's a shame that it maybe diminishes the majestic portrayal by Rachel Roberts of Mrs Appleyard, the boarding school's Dreadnought of a headmistress, who, as the tragedy begins to corrode all involved, turns before our eyes into a listing old tramp-steamer, her skypiled beehive slowly coming apart into silvery straggles, slumping just as relentlessly as her shoulders, her morale, her heart, her mind – and her establishment. She is shown pouring glass after glass of what one assumes to be absinthe – if it is, her failure to dilute and sugar it is either a rare digression from the film's fidelity to contemporary accuracy or an indication that she's in real trouble.

In the final sequence, Sarah is found dead, having apparently jumped from her room into the school greenhouse. Weir hints at an open verdict; in the very last frames, her persecutor Mrs Appleyard, in widows' weeds, sits waiting for her last journey. Within days, her body is found at the foot of the rock. More yearning, more of the unattainable, more death.

This is film as necromantic psychodrama in a form rarely seen these days, at least not as innocently, and effectively depicted. That such impulses have vanished from contemporary film-making is a great pity, but when one remembers how difficult it must have been to be able to construct a thing of beauty like this without the taint of sentimentality or adolescent naivety (that's offscreen, rather than on) then perhaps it's understandable. A film culture dominated by such conceits would be unbearable; but a film culture now almost entirely devoid of them is unacceptable.


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