Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), the first international success from the director of The Truman Show, Peter Weir, tells the story of three Australian schoolgirls and a math mistress who disappear on St. Valentine's Day in 1900 while scaling a phallic prehistoric outcropping called Hanging Rock. Weir mounts an enigmatic and completely fictional tale of horror as if it were a weighty piece of Outback history. The result may be atmospheric and elliptical, but Weir is playing an astonishingly primitive gambit -- he tells us that the events we're about to see actually happened on that date, in that year. He wants the holes in the story to register as inexplicable and "real," and thus frightening.
This movie is juvenilia in more ways than one. Weir might as well be looking at the world through a foetal sac: Everything seems as wondrous to him as to an infant and as impossible to understand. "I was frightened by a noise I heard outside my window last night, by a rasping, an inhuman sound which seemed to come out of nowhere," Weir told an interviewer in 1979, at the time of the American premiere. "That's a fear we've all experienced at one time or another. Some choose to forget such fears. I choose to remember them, to use them in my work." Sometimes, as in Picnic, he gets lost in them. Weir has removed seven minutes for the "director's cut" presentation; 47 might have been an improvement.
In the hours before the picnic, Weir's camera spies on the inmates of the fearsomely proper Mrs. Appleyard's College as they wake up and perform their toilets. He captures the senior girls in the full bloom of adolescence, and treats them like the erotic fantasies of a young boy. As they lace their corsets, they whisper and giggle in mysterious private rituals; in the morning light, they read amorous poetry with suppressed laughter and excitement. Many are painfully, unreachably beautiful. Miranda (Anne Lambert), a lithe blonde aptly described as "a Botticelli angel," tells a long-faced, dark-haired girl, Sarah, who's openly infatuated with her, that she must learn to love someone else -- Miranda says she knows she won't be around for long. Whether Miranda means that she'll soon graduate or fall off the face of the Earth is just one of the movie's endless parade of pretty conundrums. (Mrs. Appleyard won't permit Sarah, an orphan and discipline problem, to go to the picnic.)
Mrs. Appleyard's academy appears at once august and wilted; the landscape surrounding it is arid, volcanic. The heat floods over the screen in liquid waves. When the girls arrive at Hanging Rock they toast St. Valentine. They are, by and large, oblivious to the natural creatures (insects, lizards) seen in abrupt close-ups. The sultriest girls snag the attention of proper English schoolboy Michael (Dominic Guard), on an outing with his family and their youthful coachman (John Jarratt). Michael particularly admires Miranda; the servant comments on another girl, Irma, and her "hourglass" figure. Miranda, Irma, and a bespectacled, philosophical friend are the ones who trek to the top of the rock and, entranced, disappear. Later we hear that the math mistress, clad only in her underclothes, has raced up the rock to join them.
Weir suffuses the opening sequences with infantile-erotic feeling and intercuts the scenes at the rock with Mrs. Appleyard browbeating poor Sarah back at the college. He wants the audience to experience the disappearance of the Hanging Rock Four as a sensual explosion brought on by rigid Victorian proprieties. This strategy makes the first half of the film intriguing, the second half (after they vanish) pallid and repetitive. Joan Lindsay's original novel, though equally evasive, used the incident to trace sociological rifts in Australian society. Weir limits the focus, then divides it. On the one hand, a sympathetic French teacher (Helen Morse), who accompanied the girls on the picnic, tries to comfort Sarah as Mrs. Appleyard grows insane. On the other, Michael and his coachman can't shake the feeling that the girls remain alive. For the movie to click, you have to be infatuated with schoolgirls in general and with Miranda in particular, like Michael. If only it were a true howl against sexual repression -- an Australian Splendor in the Grass! That might have been fun. But the tumescent longing in this film is highfalutin; it's possible only in a society that proscribes corsets.
Although I tired of Rachel Roberts' Mrs. Appleyard on sight -- she's about as subtle as Glenn Close's Cruella DeVil -- you may feel the impulse to laugh whenever she berates Sarah or her staff. That's because Weir confuses (and makes us confuse) self-consciousness with ironic awareness, just as he does in The Truman Show. In Picnic, he combines ominous camera moves and a soundtrack blending Zamphir's pan pipe music with selections from Bach's and Beethoven's greatest hits. The result has the feel of a dozy, wee-hours TV chiller-feature showcase, sponsored by K-tel. With touches like the timepiece stopping mysteriously at noon, at heart (if the movie has one), it's simpler than a basic X-File. In Fred Schepisi's great film about a factual Australian mystery, A Cry in the Dark, Meryl Streep played a mother who swore that a dingo stole her baby. If Mrs. Appleyard were alive today she'd blame aliens.