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Picnic at Hanging Rock: Lyrical Beauty and Creeping Dread

November 5, 2009

I’m not sure exactly what it is about this film, but every time I view it, I come away afterwards with some wholly indistinct emotion that I cannot begin to describe. Is it sadness? Longing? Peace? Unease? Actually, it’s all of these and none.

There are certain films that most people are only able to view once, or never want to see again for a long, long time. A list on The Onion’s AV club of 24 great films too painful to watch twice includes many films that are either favorites of mine, or that I have watched multiple times, or both. For some odd reason, Picnic at Hanging Rock has this same effect on me. Not that it’s “painful,” mind you, but every time I watch it, I have no desire to see it again for a long time.

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The film in question

After every viewing, I always feel out of sorts, a bit off, not quite there, and after viewing it tonight, felt some indescribable emotion welling up inside. Which is strange, because the film almost seems to do its best to put the viewer at arm’s length from the characters, not letting one get emotionally involved. One is never told how or what to think. The film itself is centered around the titular event, at which 4 schoolgirls in the 1900s completely vanish, and the repercussions of this in the lives of those in and around the boarding school the girls had attended.

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Distorted perspective

The film has a gauzy, hazy, and very soft look to it. I’d swear in one of the defining shots of the film, vaseline was smeared on the camera lens. This visual aesthetic coincides very nicely with the indistinct thematic elements and recurring motifs of the film. For example, one recurring motif is a lack of perspective in many of the conversations. Multiple shots are filmed with characters reflected in one or more mirrors while having a conversation with another character. Not only does this visually distance the two characters, but it also plays with perspective, as it leaves the viewer disoriented as to which character’s perspective we are viewing from. Another recurring image is of the rock itself and its outcroppings. There is nothing inherently creepy or unsettling about it, but combined with an ominous, bass-heavy ambient soundscape, layered with Zamfir’s (?!?!) pan flute, it becomes a source of creeping dread.

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Hazy, gauzy, and luminous

The most indistinct element in the film, however, is the mystery behind what actually happened. The viewer is never given a clear-cut answer. With the hazy, soft look of the film, it is reminiscent of a feverish dream. This instills in the viewer a sense of discomfort, as he never quite knows exactly what is happening or how he should feel. And I specifically used the masculine pronoun in this case, because another underlying theme seems to be control and freedom, bondage and a very vague and slightly creepy eroticism. Corsets seem to be used here to signify being bound to strict societal rules, being controlled by forces that are impossible to break free from. Removal of gloves, stockings and shoes seems to symbolize throwing off these shackles of conformity and society, and actually becoming free. However, it seems as if this freedom comes with a price.

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A forbidden longing?

That price is not being able to return to society at large, be it due to enlightenment or some spiritual or even supernatural force. Again, the film never gives the viewer a clear-cut answer for anything that happens. Aside from [Safe], my personal “best film I’ve ever seen,” Picnic at Hanging Rock has to be the most purposefully vague film I’ve ever seen.

I’ve touched on a few of the film’s thematic elements, but in reality, I cannot put into words how and why the film works on the viewer the way it does. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of a luminous gorgeousness, a radiant beauty, with an ominous, unsettling score. Perhaps it is the very subtle eroticism that exists early in the film, and the subversion of that later with a slightly less subtle creepiness surrounding that eroticism.

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Iconic image from the film

The film is haunting, but for no readily apparent reason. It is a film that gets under the viewer’s skin, burrows its way into his brain, and will not let go. It is a film that I personally think about at random, even years between viewings. But for some reason, besides the very basic premise of the film, all the details of exactly what happens in it seem to dissipate soon after viewing, so by the next viewing, I’ve forgotten most of what even happens in the film. And again, it is reminiscent of a fever dream, in that it will profoundly affect you at the time, but later, you will be at a loss to describe exactly why.

This is the first post on this blog that relates to film instead of gaming. As I began writing this, it dawned on me that I’ve written critiques here for both Flower and Demon’s Souls, which are both my personal Games of the Year. This fim is in all honesty almost a weird amalgamation of those two games in filmic form. As the title of this post indicates, underlying an inherent lyrical beauty is a sense of creeping dread.

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