Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1636
[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 in a social context which makes it inverted and incapable of further growth. While Miranda ambivalently warns Sara that she must learn to love others, she simultaneously extends the hope that Sara will one day visit Miranda's family. The ambiguity of the girls' relationship is a touchstone for the emotional bonding of the inhabitants of Appleyard.
Appleyard is a hot-house Eden. Its blossoms would not survive in natural settings, and Miranda at least seems hesitantly aware of their fragility. The film is threaded with various kinds of incipiently lesbian relationships. (p. 22)
Much of the film rests on a polarity between the conscious and the unconscious; light and dark, exposed and hidden. The very mode of celebrating Valentine's Day is significant. The pagan, Roman celebration honoring Juno, patroness of women, and Pan, the god of nature, has been transformed by Christianity into a martyr's feast-day. Pagan rituals have been abandoned, except for the exchange of love tokens. The ancient celebration of womanhood and nature has been suppressed, but nonetheless lies waiting beneath centuries of repression—waiting to surface again. (pp. 22-3)
The journey from Appleyard to Hanging Rock is a movement out of civilization in more than one sense…. The world [the girls from Appleyard] enter is timeless, and the portrayal of it is achieved by a display of filmmaking virtuosity that is over-whelming in its grace and terrible beauty….
All [photographic] devices serve to reinforce the everpresent movement of the girls from the world of reality into the world of myth.
Mlle. de Poitiers speaks for the viewer when she voices her admiration for the beauty of youth, and her awe of the Hanging Rock. Miss McCraw, on the other hand, is irritated by human company and preoccupied by the Rock solely as physical object. She explains to the company that Hanging Rock is a result of "lava, forced up from deep down below, where it has lain for a million years." The response from one of the students, "Just think, a million years … waiting just for us," is indicative of both the self-centeredness of childish thinking, and the process of acculturation which has taught her that humanity is the center of the universe. There is, of course, an ironic truth lying much deeper than she realizes in her words; her own notion of their truth is woefully unrealized, however.
How untrue her notion is becomes apparent only gradually as the film, and the picnic, evolve. The first hints of it come from the soundtrack….
But the eeriness of the sound track is compelling not only for what is heard, but also for what is not heard…. Except for the occasional buzz of insects, or the rustle of leaves by animals, an ominous silence prevails. Its effect is to impart a strange quality, bordering on the horrific, to the superficially familiar, natural setting. It is also strikingly kinaesthetic: the heat and the languor it produces come not only from watching the sun-drenched images on the screen, but also from the impending weight of the near-silence. Above all, there is a continuous and growing apprehension produced by the absence of sound.
The visual impact of the Hanging Rock itself conveys an overwhelming sense of animism that is the hallmark of this film. The Rock, an urcathedral complete with gargoyle-like figures embedded in its heights, creates the film's most disturbing reactions. (p. 23)
What happens on Hanging Rock is the enigma at the center of the film. It is the question asked by everyone—character and viewer alike. No explicit answers, apart from the unfolding of the film, and our experience of it, are given; implicit ones are….
The questions, "How?" and "Why?" are the axes on which the remainder of the film spins.
A closer look at the ascent of the Rock, and at the Rock itself, is helpful. As the four girls climb, Marion, the intellectual among the group, notices the people below. They include not only the other members of the Appleyard party, but another separate group of holiday-makers…. They are the representatives of the larger world of which Appleyard is but a corner. It is a world of flux, less isolated and less insular than Appleyard, and consequently less secure in its perceptions of both the larger natural order and the parochial, social order of things….
Marion, however, achieves a far wider vision. In reflecting on the people below, she comments that "a surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves." In this observation is a key to at least one perception of the meaning of the Rock, and the events of Valentine's Day, 1900. Marion implies that the human activity below, as seen from the heights of the Rock, is meaningless except within the context of some grander design. It is as if she is speaking for the forces which have caused the eruption of the Rock itself. Such forces might speak of human activity in the same terms the girls themselves apply to the group below: "Like a lot of ants …" The analogy to the instinctual world of ants raises the question of whether human beings also function by merely fulfilling the designs of forces larger and more powerful than themselves.
Miranda, as usual, provides an answer of sorts: "Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place." She, like her namesake in The Tempest, has discovered a brave, new world. She and the others scale the Rock and transcend the limits of their civilized lives. They literally are lost on the Rock. Metaphorically, they are exploring the hidden depths of an instinctual world—a world of sensuality and passion. The ascent of the Rock functions as a primitive rite of passage for the young women, and the vehicle of this experience seems to be an acceptance of their existence as sexual beings.
For Hanging Rock is not only a temple-like edifice, but also an emblem of human sexuality. The topmost peaks are phallic; the caves and narrow passages below are vaginal in structure and contour…. [The] eye of the camera, hidden in the Rock, is our own…. We are buried in the Rock. Or our instinctual selves are—a truth that is discovered in the film by at least two survivors of the experience who live to tell the tale. (p. 24)
The scars on [the brows of Michael and Irma] mark them for the audience as having been singled out, or made different by some ineffable experience. Like Cain, they are marked as outsiders and are condemned to live differently from their peers….
The Irma who re-enters the lives of her schoolmates is not the Irma they have known. She is no longer a child, but a woman, swathed in a red traveling ensemble; her appearance causes an outbreak of mass hysteria among the girls….
The disappearance of the women on the Rock, and the reappearance of the survivors, Irma and Michael, cause hysterical reactions among others as well. Mrs. Appleyard's disintegration is the most visibly dramatic…. As her drinking increases, the sadism which has been swimming in her blood surfaces and seeks as its main prey the young Sara Waybourne. (p. 25)
How, and why, remain unanswered questions [when Sara is found dead]. As Mr. White head has explained in an earlier sequence to Tom, the college handyman, "Some questions got answers and some haven't." It is a fitting epitaph for Sara, and an equally fitting epigraph for the entire film.
The close of the film, then, provides no factual answers, only more questions. But then, questions are the essence of this film. The viewer is left with the sensation of having encountered a visual representation of several human beings' involvement with an almost "motiveless malignancy." At least that is one perspective. For there is little doubt that the film is terrifyingly effective as a foray into the supernatural. But like all great horror films, it succeeds in making the psychological realities one cannot see even more fearful than those events outwardly depicted on the screen.
Another perspective requires that one view the events of the Picnic at Hanging Rock as taking place in a realm that is limited neither by the natural nor the supernatural—the realm of art. The film works best when seen in terms of visual metaphor. In the party of schoolgirls who picnic at the Rock, there are several who never return to Appleyard. They transcend its limits and free themselves from the conventions of a narrow and repressive world. By doing so they are absorbed into a world that is more mysterious, more powerful, and ultimately more disturbing than that which we are comfortable.
The impact of the film lies in just that ability to make its audiences uncomfortable…. [In] its suggestion that there is far more to our lives than the tiny framework within which we allow ourselves to interpret so-called reality, it is totally unsettling. (pp. 25-6)
Ed Roginski, "Reviews: 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1977 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Summer, 1977, pp. 22-6.