Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

“What we see, and what we seem are but a dream: a dream within a dream.”

Landscapes open Peter Weir’s haunting 1975 picture. The still image of trees, caught in a haze, slowly erodes, revealing the titular rock formation. Jagged, dominating the landscape, the rocks serve as a simultaneous background and foreground in an unmoving frame. Fading out, we see another angle of the rocks, now with the elegant cursive title scrawled across the screen: Picnic at Hanging Rock. This series of images—the trees, the haze, the exposed earth—is followed by the movement into the boarding school, Appleyard College, nestled in a brown field of flowers, and the first voiceover line, “a dream within a dream.”

Weir’s montage places the viewer inside this dream logic. Things are always within other things. The young women are within the school, the school within the field, the field within the bush. The pattern continues. The logic of Hanging Rock, however, is a logic aware of itself. The images of the film’s opening sequence oscillate in scope to reveal the sheer immensity of the landscape alongside its minute details. A famous still from the film sees a gathering of people from the college entirely dwarfed by the trees and the towering cliffs. This image is followed by ants clambering over the leftovers and crumbs from a pink Valentine’s Day cake. The juxtaposition of these scales—the massive against the minute—suggests a containment that is uneasy, as if the small within the large may somehow bleed together.

When I watch Picnic at Hanging Rock, I am simultaneously immersed and removed. The narrative, which follows the disappearance of three girls and one teacher from a college in the Australian wilderness, is easily gripping. Yet, as the film lingers over these frames of the rock and the trees, it seems as though it is in conversation not with the moving images of the central plot, but with the still images of painting. Towards the beginning of the film, as the girls make their ascent on the rock, Miranda—who becomes a focal point in the film’s attention to the missing girls—is described by the French teacher as “a Botticelli angel.” The camera then pans down to the art book she is reading; her hands gloss over details from The Birth of Venus. Miranda disappears into the woods, becoming as mysterious and enchanting as the Venus who gazes absently from out of the book.

There is a conscious attempt to pay homage to painting in Hanging Rock. As many critics have noted, the film’s representation of landscape and the fact that it is set in 1900s Australia gestures to a contemporary artistic movement, the Heidelberg School, an Impressionist program which took root in Australia around the turn of the century. The critics Jonathan Rayner and Graeme Turner specifically cite Frederick McCubbin’s Lost (1886), a painting which, in its title, sets a female figure lost amid the trees of a dense forest, as having a profound impact on the visual style of Hanging Rock in The Films of Peter Weir and National Fictions, respectively. Weir captures the fin-de-siècle milieu of South Australia in his gestures to the visual aesthetic sensibilities of local period artists, resulting in a film that works as if it were a painting completed 75 years prior to its release.

Indeed, immersed and removed, the dreamlike structure of the film leads us through a series of images that recall the pages of art history textbooks or the halls of museums. Yet, when the French teacher likens Miranda to a Botticelli figure, I’m reminded less of a strictly Australian artistic catalog, and more of a broader artistic depiction of beauty and of the sublime.

Where the Renaissance is invoked directly with the Birth of Venus comparison, the film also frequently recalls another Botticelli, Primavera, as well as Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. In Primavera the natural landscape, which subsumes the youthful figures—draped in white, like the girls in Hanging Rock— becomes, for Da Vinci, a place of much harsher extremes. The sharp, dramatic peaks in Virgin of the Rocks, as they surround the central Botticelli-like Madonna, are the closest analogues to the dominating, craggy outcrops of Peter Weir’s visual world.

Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks

Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks

The film can be read, with its juxtaposition of the girls against the rock, as a meditation on the difference between beauty and sublimity. Borrowing from the Romantic philosopher Edmund Burke,[1] the film visually dramatizes the rift between the joy and pleasurability of the beautiful and the terror of the sublime. The Valentine’s Day cake, carefully decorated in pink and white frosting, the costumes, intricate, sumptuous and immaculately detailed, and the girls themselves become paragons of beauty against a large and looming natural world. The rock, however, inspiring both fear and awe, is a manifestation of the sublime. It is to the shadowy crevices and ancient features of the volcanic formation that the girls are drawn; it is within these crevices that they are lost forever.

I’ve described Picnic at Hanging Rock to friends as what might have happened if E. M. Forster had written Twin Peaks. Like Lynch, Weir operates within a kind of dream logic—we move like a somnambulist between images: the girls taking a nap at the top of the rock, the disappearance of the girls, the overlay of red as Edith runs screaming from the summit, and the unanswered mystery at the core of the film: what actually happened at Hanging Rock? This question I will leave unanswered, but part of the intrigue in the film is precisely how unanswerable this question really is. To echo the film’s opening line, “what we see,” is what we see. The girls climb up the rock and suddenly disappear. Only one girl, Irma, is found—with no recollection of what had occurred in her absence.

The comparison to Forster touches on the disappearance of the girls in a different light. Hanging Rock, as an epicenter of the unexplained, is often compared to the Marabar Caves of A Passage to India. Indeed, the period setting of the film, the concentration of wealthy British elites in a remote environment, and the keen interest and attention to nature reflect a collection of shared interests between Forster’s book and Weir’s film. Visually, Picnic at Hanging Rock evokes the Merchant-Ivory adaptations of Forster’s novels that would be released about a decade later: sweeping landscapes, late-Victorian and Edwardian regalia, a manor house with private spheres for both the wealthy owners and their servants.

It is in the relationship between the victorian milieu and the landscape in which that milieu exists that the Forsterian comparison becomes most compelling. Where A Passage to India is quite explicitly about the colonial encounter between Britain and India, Picnic at Hanging Rock offers a colonial world where the indigenous Australians are removed from the narrative, left out of focus and off-screen. A Passage to India considers, if from the narrow humanist perspective of Forster himself, the voices in opposition to colonial rule; in Hanging Rock, these voices are completely silenced.

Hanging Rock’s social world is undeniably settler-colonialist. It is in an Australia that is still under British rule (set only a year before Australia’s declaration of national sovereignty in 1901).

It is, too, a depiction of complete estrangement from the natural world. When the girls disappear in the rock, an effort to search for them ensues, but this effort is futile. In a landscape entirely alien to the British settlers, the disappearance of the girls in the Australian bush suddenly and dramatically reinforces the idea that this environment is decidedly not their home. It is a reminder that the colonial project is fundamentally at odds with its surroundings.

Botticelli's Primavera

Botticelli’s Primavera

However, when the girls ascend to the highest point of Hanging Rock, they, too, are silenced. Miranda is the Botticelli-center of the film for only the first 35 minutes. The paintings that the film presents are, as the midday journey up the rock transitions to the late-night return to Appleyard College—three girls and one math teacher missing—unframed and reframed. Lacking the Madonna in foreground, the film zooms out, revealing only the sublime surfaces in which she was lost. The film then traces the tragic recognition on the part of the British settlers that their world is much bigger than themselves. The terror of the sublime comes to signal the fraught relationship between the colonists and their elusive surroundings.

As the girls ascend the rock and disappear, it is as if the focal point of a painting is suddenly pulled into the background, revealing only the landscape beyond. It is this pulling back which exposes the relationships between the settlers and their environment, which renders the sublime terrifying. The terror manifests as an existential reflection of the colonial project itself, forcing onlookers to reckon with their futility in the face of the truly monumental. Using a structure of pictures within pictures, and dreams within dreams, Weir leads us into the rigid, ceaseless, and ultimately empty colonial project. Much like the girls, before being lured into the wilderness, we become bound yearning to escape.

The college’s headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard, who wears austere black dresses and a permanent scowl, is painted as a tyrant. She is left with the orphan Sara while her students have their Valentine’s Day picnic at the base of Hanging Rock. The dynamic between these two can be seen as a mirror within the film as a whole. Mrs. Appleyard, embodying colonial authority, is punitive and cruel. To escape the structures in which she is trapped, Sara commits suicide—leaping, notably, into the natural world of the garden. Following this disappearance at Hanging Rock, the withdrawal from her school by the remaining girls, and Sara’s death, Mrs. Appleyard also self-destructs. The film ends with her death, representing her own confrontation with the rock—closing, as it opens, with the dominance of the landscape.

[1] Extrapolating from his On the Sublime and Beautiful

Return to Journal