It’s not giving anything away to tell you that Picnic at Hanging Rock concerns the story of three girls who go missing while on a picnic in Victoria, Australia in 1900. This is revealed before the film starts, and in this case the disclosure works. The film is not about what happened to them, or why; nor does it resemble a mystery in the conventional sense. It is, rather, a mystery of mood. It is Wicker Man mixed with Walkabout and left unresolved. And it’s gorgeous.
Peter Weir has a varied resumé, but in this film he has created a timeless portrait of a fictional incident. The residents, one wants to say inmates, of Mme. Appleyard’s school for girls awake on Valentine’s Day to set into motion a series of mannered, fantasy-like events in which they wash their faces in basins full of flowers, create a train of corset-tightening, and one declares to another, “You must learn to love someone other than me.” Girls say things like, “everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place” and “a surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves,” to one another, seemingly unprovoked and rather unrealistically.
But the whole thing, for us, is unrealistic. It made me realize just how different “being a girl” would be if I lived in this film; it is a world I know nothing about, and one which most likely never existed. There are few answers here, not least because this is not a world we know. It looks like something that could be the real world, but it is removed from ours in time, in gauzy slow-motion, in the angelic, magnetic personality that is Miranda but is no one we recognize. Most of the significant relationships are between members of the same gender; aside from the hired help, meaning is found in other girls, other men. Texture is found in the natural phenomena of the ground around the Rock; clouds, ants, parrots, and lizards seem to comment on the futile nature of human activity to transcend mere animal survival.
At the same time, the beauty of the images, of the people and things in them (especially, for me, John Jarrett as the hired man Albert), does transcend survival. There is worth to these images, these simple evocations of a life that may not have existed. The film, while mysterious and sad and hopeless, nevertheless offers hope in the fact of its very existence. Some questions don’t need to be answered, because the search for them is the important thing. Not all viewers will feel this way; especially in this time, answers are a requirement even if they make no sense. But beauty requires no explanation, and neither should this movie.