Peter Weir Richard Combs - Essay

Richard Combs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.