After my first viewing of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, I was ready to dismiss it as a art-house mystery that was way too over hyped for its own good. PICNIC is a film that was loved by everyone I had spoken to about it and I just didn’t get it. That is, until a friend urged me to give it another view. “This time”, he said, “just keep an open mind. Anything goes in the movie” Now, I can’t even see how I was so easy to overlook… well, everything that makes PICNIC such a great film.
The beauty of the premise is that it provides with you something unprecedented for a film: an unsolved mystery. Four girls and a teacher venture to the top of Hanging Rock and only one returns, with no memory of the events that took place. A second is found a week later, with the same loss of memory. The fact that the director only gives you 95% of the clues needed to solve the mystery is what makes this such a personal experience. Every time you watch PICNIC, you’ll pick up on new clues or view them in a different light, taking you down a path to an alternate conclusion. In a way, it’s a lot like reading a Pick-Your-Own-Adventure book. At the end of each scene, there are many new questions to ponder. How you answer those questions will alter your concept of what occurs in the next scene, ultimately causing you to arrive at a different solution.
The score adds new depth to the mystery presented, giving incredible detail without which specific scenes would be interpreted in an entirely new light. The moody sounds of the ghostly piano pieces give the forest and Hanging Rock itself an alien feeling, as if nature is being altered as the film progresses. The pan pipe gives a mythological vibe, working with the sped up camera speed, to create an ethereal atmosphere on the cliffs and giving the school girls an angelic presence.
In addition to the already excellent story telling techniques present in the film, the psychological aspects really conjure up many questions in the viewer’s mind. Are the young girls overly playful and sexually innocent, as portrayed in an early scene featuring all of the girls tying each other’s corsets and brushing each others hair? Or, as hinted in some of the dialogue, are there acts of lesbianism occurring at the school? Does that account for the obsession all the school girls, and to a certain extent, the teachers, have with Miranda? Is that why Mrs. Appleby is so stringent and overbearing with the students? All of these are questions to be reckoned with and lead me to the conclusion that Weir and Co. are purposely trying to lead viewer away from a widely accepted conclusion and keep it as a completely visceral experience. As Mr. Whitehead says during the film, “There’s some questions got answers and some haven’t.”
While viewing PICNIC AT PICNIC ROCK, make a point to totally immerse yourself in the story, casting yourself as a character whose sole purpose is to be an onlooker. In a rotational fashion, then proceed to cast yourself as each individual character. Doing so will allow you to catch a glimpse of details otherwise too easily overlooked. All in all, the film offers the ultimate thrill ride for the mystery seeker, wishing to sleuth it out and theorize for days.
Special Features (Region 2 Second Sight Release)
The first and second disc feature the director’s cut (which seems to be more appreciated and the one I prefer) and the original theatrical cut, which, as far as I can tell, hasn’t been available on DVD before. Until this release, Criterion has been the only company to the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, which is a big plus because now you can have the right framing and tons of bonus features, making this the best release so far. The third disc has the following features:
A Dream Within A Dream (113:18): If there is anything in this DVD set that you should watch (besides for the film itself, of course), its A Dream Within A Dream. From pre-production (which started with Weir working on a vampire film (!) as his follow-up to THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS) to on-set difficulties (actress Rachel Roberts tried to segregate the children and adult actors on set) to the decision to make a director’s cut for its American debut, the documentary is a veritable soup to nuts account of everything that has anything to do with the history of PAHR. The retrospectives shared by Weir and Co. are insightful, humorous and heartbreaking (actress Jane Vallis’ passing), giving you the honest-to-God impression of how tight nit this group of talent was (something that feels forced in most DVD extras).
A Recollection – Hanging Rock 1900 (25:55): Shot while principal photography was still going strong, this documentary features on-set interviews with cast members, Peter Weir and author Joan Lindsay. While this documentary pales in comparison to A Dream Within A Dream, it’s interesting to compare the mindset of the talent then and now.
Joan Lindsay Interview (14:59): Lindsay touches on the beginning of her writing career, her paintings and, of course, PAHR. She also mentions the ending of the book and how there is no real solution to the mystery. However, in the 1980’s, the ending to the novel, which her publisher edited out during its original publication, was finally published. Which brings me to the conclusion that including the new ending as a PDF or audio file would have been a great extra to go along with this set.
Audio Interview with Karen Robson (14:52): A phone interview with Robson, who played Irma in the film. In addition to talking about PAHR (she covers the same general ground in A Dream Within A Dream), the beginnings of her acting career and her life post-PAHR are covered.
Hanging Rock and Martindale Hall: Then And Now (5:41): Features then and now pictures and tracking shots of the various locations used in the film, while the score plays. The DVD case touts this as a “tour of the film’s principal locations” but its nothing more than a slide show. What I would have fervently enjoyed is having the production designer, location scouter or director (or all three) give a tour of the locations, talk about why they were used, what other locations were considered, the difficulties of using certain ones, etc. They do talk a little bit about locations in A Dream Within A Dream but they could have gone to town here. Sadly, this feature which could have been a must-watch sadly seems like filler.
The Day of Saint Valentine (3:44): The first screen adaptation of Lindsay’s novel made in 1969 by 13 year old Tony Ingram. For a film made by a 13 year old, with a cast of classmates, its well-done. Actually, it’s better than some student film’s I’ve seen come out of local college film programs. Ingram managed to capture the the moody atmosphere in an extremely truncated version of the book that works surprisingly well. I only wish there was an option to watch the film without Ingram’s running commentary, which you can’t turn off.
Scenes Deleted For The Director’s Cut (8:26): Most of these scenes (which can be seen in their correct context on the theatrical version on disc two) deal with the relationship between Michael and Irma, which was what Weir edited out to create the director’s cut. Since the film is based around complete and total mystery, the relationship seemed too obvious and bogged the film down, as it really goes nowhere. The scenes taken out were done for good measure and I think the film benefited from it 110%.
Stills And Poster Gallery (7:28): For those who are interested in the book, this supplemental will give you a taste of its style. Actress Helen Morse reads an excerpt from the book (the mountain ascension) while movie stills, poster art and behind-the-scenes photos (of which there should have been more) play in the background.