Peter Weir Essay - Critical Essays

Weir, Peter


Peter Weir 1944–

Australian director, screenwriter, and actor.

Weir's films convey his perception of the mystical in everyday events. A successful director emerging from Australia's recent New Wave, he juxtaposes the beautiful and the bizarre, creating a calm exterior that masks the unknown.

Weir made several short films before obtaining a directorial position at Film Australia. His first full-length film, Three To Go, won the Grand Prix of Australia and was nationally televised. In 1971, Weir won another Grand Prix for Homesdale. After making several documentaries, Weir directed his first feature, The Cars that Ate Paris. The film combines a variety of genres to provide social commentary on the modern automotive fetish. Though a dismal commercial failure, critics received it favorably.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is considered one of Australia's finest films. Its ethereal visual quality belies the ominous subject matter. Picnic at Hanging Rock suggests that we live placidly on the edge of hellish disturbing forces beyond our control. Since the supernatural conquers, the film seems to justify a fear of the unknown.

The Last Wave uses water imagery to depict unknown powers. Because of this film's link with aboriginal beliefs, it is a more mystic, brooding work than Picnic at Hanging Rock. Some critics, however, feel that Weir concerned himself more with establishing a darkly ominous tone than with narrative development. The Plumber, too, has a primitive influence similar to The Last Wave, but presents evil in the form of a young "bogeyman." Its form of black comedy is strongly reminiscent of the plays of Harold Pinter.

Weir says he does not set out to depict the supernatural deliberately. However, the pervasive image of unseen powers in his films echoes Edgar Allan Poe's words stated at the beginning of Picnic at Hanging Rock: "What we are and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream."

Ed Peltier

Music and poetry are the arts most difficult to transfer to cinema. Peter Weir, an imaginative Australian writer-director, has accomplished this most successfully in the film Incredible Floridas. It derives its title from a line in a poem by Arthur Rimbaud: "I've struck, I tell you, incredible floridas" [the Spanish word for "full of flowers, choice or select"].

The film is built around the musical homage paid the 19th century French poet by 41-year-old Richard Meale, a leader in contemporary music in Australia. In his own words Meale reveals his early interest in Rimbaud's poetry, his fascination with the poet, and his many attempts over a period of years to put his feeling for Rimbaud into music.

Through uncluttered cinematic devices and with this music as background, the viewer becomes intimately acquainted with both Meale the composer, and Rimbaud the poet, in a linkage though 100 years apart in time, of these two creative minds….

There will be viewers of this film who will be made curious about Rimbaud; others will be stimulated to greater knowledge of Meale and to developments in the musical life of Australia of which a glimpse is given here….

The narration is well paced, its delivery readily understandable. Together, the director and the cameraman have captured the brooding, haunting quality of both Meale's music and Rimbaud's poetry to an extent rarely developed in a film on the two arts.

Ed Peltier, "'Incredible Floridas'," in Film News (© Rohama Lee, d/b/a/Film News Company), Vol. 31, No. 2, April-May, 1974, p. 33.

Philip Strick

Like all the best fantasies, [The Cars that Ate Paris] illuminates the truth with its headlights; the film's title in fact works as a metaphor, and Paris could as well be London, New York, or actually Paris. The erosion of humanity by malevolent technological influences is actually more cliché than truth, perhaps, and the peculiarly immediate effect of the car on the personality has been lovingly revealed by the cinema many times …, but The Cars that Ate Paris is closer to [Kurosawa's] Dodes'ka-den than to [Lazlo Benedek's] The Wild One, closer to Arrabal and Ballard than to Asimov. Which is not to say that the film is always certain of its destination; Australian domestic comedies, remorselessly twanging on the same threadbare lines of humour, have left their mark, and the Royal Portrait still hangs behind the mayoral desk…. But, as with that other masterpiece of anarchy, [George Romero's] Night of the Living Dead, the suspension of conventional dramatic laws adds a curious potency to the thrust of the film, and we find ourselves in an uneasy and uncharted territory where logic has taken a blind turning and there is no escape route. (p. 102)

Philip Strick, "'The Cars that Ate Paris'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1975), Vol. 42, No. 496, May, 1975, pp. 101-02.

Geoff Brown

[In The Cars That Ate Paris] the dying town is in the clichéd position of living off the refuse of a materialistic society—symbolised in this instance by the automobile (the accidents are planned, the cars and victims then looted). But the obviousness of its theme has little adverse effect on the success of The Cars That Ate Paris …, a grotesque and engaging horror-comedy….

[Weir's] directorial manner is cool and collected enough for the depicted events to seem startlingly matter-of-fact. The Mayor is the most fully developed character in the bizarre drama….

In the hallowed horror movie tradition, Arthur [the hero] is about to tell the vicar his fears when his potential ally meets a nasty death off-screen—'accidentally', the town decides. Now the movie's pace tightens and the eccentricities loom larger…. [The Pioneer's Ball is] a marvellously funny sequence, and any participant in village fêtes or church socials will recognise the seeds of truth: the lady pianist mechanically pounds out jolly tunes; the Mayor half-heartedly leads the dancing; everyone's 'fancy dress' seems desperate. However, their costumes are nothing compared with those of the hospital patients, who make a triumphant entrance with cereal packets on their heads or cardboard boxes round their waists….

True, the movie has its faults: the pacing is often sluggish (particularly in the opening stages), the structuring of the story is haphazard, and most of the performances could be sharpened with benefit. But after the boorish and boring adventures of Alvin Purple and Barry McKenzie, it's refreshing and encouraging to find an Australian film which never wallows in its country's inglorious mores but uses them tactfully to further an intriguing and compelling narrative of its own.

Geoff Brown, "Film Reviews: 'The Cars that Ate Paris'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1975 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 44, No. 3, Summer, 1975, p. 192.

Richard Combs

After his stylistic fumbling with the interesting fantasy material of The Cars That Ate Paris, Peter Weir seems to be on surer ground with Picnic at Hanging Rock—a pure 'atmosphere' piece, with all manner of submerged dreads and longings collecting thickly in the air of a Victorian summer. The consummate and consistent lushness of the film in this respect, however, could be seen as a kind of displacement; the uncertainty in the style of Cars has become the subject of Picnic, and what one might identify as the Weir method—working round his subject, following various tangents but never quite clinching the heart of the matter—finds its perfect complement here, not only in the unsolved mystery at the centre of the plot, but in the repressions and evasions of the Victorian setting…. The trouble with the film begins in the early stages with its tendency to emphasise the psychosexual inevitability of the three girls' ultimate communion with (and absorption by) the spirit of the Rock—"Everything begins and ends at exactly the right place and time"—and continues in the latter stages with its compulsion to 'legitimise' this mystery without a solution by setting off a series of mini-mysteries concerning all the other characters…. The film's clumsiness in this respect is compounded by the one scene in which it attempts to crystallise its sense of the adventure on the Rock as a sexual odyssey: when Irma enters the school gym to confront her fellow pupils for the first time since her return, clad in a bright red dress, the hushed company of girls suddenly breaks out into hysterical screaming as they demand to know what happened and what Irma saw. A much more interesting project than The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock for a while suggests that it has the measure of its ambitions; what finally irritates is not that it poses a riddle without an answer, but that in posing it the film seems to be overtaken by an attack of the stutters. (pp. 196-97)

Richard Combs, "'Picnic at Hanging Rock'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1976), Vol. 43, No. 512, September, 1976, pp. 196-97.

Tom Milne

Weir caps [the] opening movement of [Picnic at Hanging Rock] with an absolutely superb shot. As four girls set off to explore the Rock itself …, he cuts to a high-angle shot down on the rest of the party frozen in exquisitely elegant yet shamelessly carnal attitudes of post-prandial satiation. Like a painting by Auguste Renoir of the bon bourgeois at play, it evokes that magical moment when nature somehow contrives to unloose the bonds of convention. The theme, unfortunately, is not always allowed to speak for itself in this way. Perhaps because Joan Lindsay's novel never provides any explanation for the disappearance of the three girls—so maintaining the illusion of being a speculation on a...

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Ed Roginski

[The artificiality and repressiveness of Appleyard College are uncomfortably recognizable in Picnic at Hanging Rock.] The opening sequence of St. Valentine's morning is characterized by the excitement of the girls' exchange of greetings among themselves and their teachers. It closes, however, with the haunting image of one of the girls imprisoning a rose in a flower-press. What had been a delicate, vital blossom becomes a beautiful, dead icon.

The pressing of the rose emblematically depicts the emotional ambiance of the school. The symbol of eternal love is closed in the airless device just as the affection between Miranda and Sara …, an orphan and the school's youngest boarder, is enclosed...

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Richard Combs

[Weir's] films—lush, beckoning fantasies, promising exotic vistas from strange new lands—have a seductiveness befitting an emergent cinema. Unfortunately, Weir's deftness with 'atmosphere' seems to have been developing at the expense of any narrative or thematic sense. The tantalising promise of Picnic at Hanging Rock was that the lush, repressed romanticism of its Victorian girls' school setting might have become its subject—implying that it was the secretiveness and fearfulness of this culture that had generated the unsolved mystery of the plot. But unwilling or unable to make more of this, Weir used his lyricism largely to fill in holes in the story: creating minor mysteries about incidental characters...

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Gordon Gow

From the very outset of [The Last Wave, an] intelligently imaginative film, Peter Weir creates an eerie sense of nature gone awry….

Supernatural forces are evidently at work. But their ways are subtle, for Weir is broaching again the gossamer mysticism he explored so superbly in his film of the Joan Lindsay novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. Neither an incomplete fragment of history nor a period atmosphere are to be conjured up this time, and the current film, while hardly reaching the quality of that last one, is probably the more arduous feat: an essay on atavism set in a wholly naturalistic present, against which the strong impressions of unknown influences are thrown into startling...

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Tim Pulleine

Early passages of Peter Weir's [The Last Wave] suggest that he has successfully married the vigour of his first film, The Cars That Ate Paris, to the plastic and enigmatic qualities of its successor, Picnic at Hanging Rock…. [The] episodes of Billy Corman's death and Burton's subsequent involvement in the legal proceedings are economically dovetailed into the narrative, with Weir integrating the various strands of the plot through the persisting water imagery—the sprinkler playing on Burton's lawn as he discusses his nightmare with his stepfather, the dripping tap in the mortuary where Corman's body is examined. All the more disappointing, then, that Burton's attempts to elucidate the...

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Vincent Canby

["The Last Wave"] begins so brilliantly and with such promise that it's no real surprise that the closer it gets to its apocalypse, the less effective it becomes. The film's payoff is decidedly small, recalling nothing more esoteric than the discovery of the elephants' graveyard in one of the early Tarzan movies. Yet until we arrive at this breathless anticlimax, "The Last Wave" is a movingly moody shock-film, composed entirely of the kind of variations on mundane behavior and events that are most scary and disorienting because they so closely parallel the normal….

Though the inspiration of Mr. Weir and his associates runs out before the end, "The Last Wave" is an impressive work…. He's a man...

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Dan Yakir

Peter Weir's The Last Wave is an ambitiously conceived and dramatically executed film that combines a variety of genres—the psychological thriller, the courtroom drama, the disaster film, and the supernatural mystery—into a unique cinematic achievement. Its profound social and political implications are as unsettling as its buildup of suspense is subtle. With its linear narrative and direct, matter-of-fact tone, The Last Wave is a striking portrayal of the inner hysteria of a man and his world-order gone awry….

[The] thunderstorm shatters the ordered complacency enjoyed by lawyer David Burton … and by the white society to which he belongs. In its apocalyptic culmination, the...

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Pauline Kael

Weir's occultism isn't even faintly erotic, and except for the first sequence The Last Wave is over-deliberate; the camera movements are ominous as if by habit.

Visually, the film is active until the first shot of [David Burton], a Sydney corporation lawyer. Every time he appears, the camera seems to hold on him—and the film croaks out. (p. 533)

Weir provides apparitions holding sacred stones, frog noises in the night, shadows in slow motion, and the kind of haunted-house acting that many of us have a certain affection for—the actors' sense of hopelessness is so disarming as they deliver a line and then try to find a suitable expression to go with it. But The Last...

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Vernon Young

Picnic At Hanging Rock is the second and the best of three films made by Peter Weir and the masterpiece to date of Australian independent filmmaking. To call it a masterpiece in the context of our current critical and advertising vocabulary is to court skepticism; the term is usually reserved for something weighty and pragmatic, believed to point a moral with social resonance. Picnic is frankly a diaphanous horror story…. (p. 416)

Weir's movie is permeated with suppressed eroticism that never crudely surfaces. By lyric touches and the art of indirection he conveys the somewhat smelly radiance that emanates from the girlish admixture of innocent crush and diffused smut which...

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Marsha Kinder

[The Plumber is] a 76-minute Pinteresque black comedy, which at times is hysterically funny and at other times emotionally disturbing….

The Plumber is in some ways a more perfectly realized work than Weir's earlier, more ambitious films…. The brilliance of the film lies in taking [a] stock situation from domestic comedy, which would be farcical in the context of an I Love Lucy show, and transforming it into a desperate struggle for sanity and survival. (p. 17)

[The] ambiguity in the story greatly enriches its meaning. [Weir] consciously cultivates the reading of [Jill and Max's encounter] on many different levels—not merely as a sexual struggle between a...

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