Director Peter Weir's metaphysical mystery film, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), was the harbinger of a brief golden age for Australian cinema, a down-under New Wave which flourished in the late '70s and early '80s. It seemed, then, that a new directorial talent was emerging every few months, debuting with films both varied in subject matter and approach, and yet all distinctly Australian.
It's this Aussie specificity which gives meaning to the otherwise inexplicable incident at the heart of Picnic. The movie centers around a Valentine's Day outing in 1900 by a group of young girls from a genteel if rather strict boarding school. During their innocent picnic at the site of a million-year-old volcanic formation called Hanging Rock, four of the girls decide to do a little exploring. Only one comes back, the other three seeming to have vanished without a trace; so has one of their teachers who had wandered off separately. The rest of the film deals with various attempts to solve this mystery, as well as its devastating effects on the rest of the students and, eventually, the fate of the school itself.
We are told at the very beginning of the film that the girls will vanish, a device which lends an eerie portentousness to its low-keyed opening section. These somewhat sheltered young women are definitely out of their element once they leave the school grounds, but then it's suggested that almost anyone would be. The ancient volcanic rock looms like an affront to human frailty; the lizards slither by with supreme indifference and voracious ants crawl over the leftover tea cake as well as the legs of the girls napping in the hot sun.
Australia was, and is, a country where centers of civilization huddle amid a vast and often hostile terrain. When one of the characters in the film refers to the rocky giant that swallowed up the girls as "the bush," it's understood that the word doesn't just mean foliage -- it means nature, timeless and intractable, and dangerously uncaring of mere mortals. In this setting, it doesn't seem so odd that four people might suddenly go missing; scary, no doubt, but understandable.
Weir's best films have always dealt with the intrusion of a frightening Otherness into everyday life, whether it be represented by Aboriginal culture (The Last Wave, 1977) or death (Fearless, 1993) or Picnic's encroaching nature. Even his latest film, The Truman Show, is most effective not as a media satire but as the story of a man who slowly discovers that his world is a paltry thing in a larger reality.
Picnic is his purest statement of this theme, a subtle dreamlike movie which imperceptibly shades into dark fantasy.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.