Features and Columns · Movies

Criterion Files #29: Picnic at Hanging Rock

By  · Published on August 4th, 2010

There are five words in the English language that when strung together instantly build a mysterious attraction when they’re attached to a work of art, or literature. They’re not inherently important or powerful words, but their presence alongside a particular work gets used repeatedly as a means to increase whatever importance or effect that piece would receive by a given audience on its own. They’re a proverbial shortcut to accentuating a natural reaction.

Those words: based, on, a, true, and story.

Does the Truth Matter?

Before the first chapter opens, before the curtains raise, or before the opening credits roll if an audience thinks that what they’re watching or reading about is a representation of something that actually happened the stakes are instantly raised. The love story is more romantic, the war story more tragic, and the horror story is more terrifying because they’re true. It’s slightly strange that even if some of the most bizarre pieces of fiction are somewhat based on some kind of experience or overheard story by the author, if the work doesn’t claim to be based on something real then the audience assumes it was all made up even if some of it wasn’t. However, if something claims to be based on a real account the audience is likely to accept almost anything it presents as a reenactment of something that actually happened, even though, many times, much of a “based on actual events” narrative may be fabricated for dramatic effect; or in some cases completely false altogether. In the former instance the film is judged by its own ability to do what it sets out to do. In the latter case the film is judged also by doing what it sets out to do, but with more favorable odds. In a way, it’s like exposing a particular handicap so that the audience can sympathize and not feel as critical as they might have if they thought the piece didn’t need any assistance.

The real accomplishment any given work can achieve, especially if not deliberately attempted, is to make the audience perceive that what they’re reading or watching is based on something real, when in fact it is not real nor did it ever truly claim to be. It presents itself as a form of documentation, using real places and setting itself in a particular time, but doesn’t ever say, in other words, “this actually happened.”

A good number of films have done this, many of them horror films, to give the impression that what is being shown is ‘real’ footage, such as The Blair Witch Project. If you buy into the idea that you’re watching actual footage of an actual supernatural occurrence the film is done well enough to appear and feel real. If you know the film is fiction it becomes three actors in the woods running from the air; much less frightening.

In the case of Peter Weir’s adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock” the film opens with a brief written prologue about how three girls from a private boarding school disappeared while on a trip to a geological site, known as Hanging Rock, on Valentine’s Day in the year 1900. From there the film lets you decide on your own whether you want to believe you’re watching a story based on a real mysterious tragedy from 1900, or complete fiction. What sets Picnic at Hanging Rock apart from most films that are allegedly non-fictitious is that its effect on the viewer is not affected by whether they feel the events are true or false.

Many stories use the “Based on a True Story” tag as a means to turn something bad to tolerable, tolerable to good, or good to shocking. Picnic at Hanging Rock works equally as well as a piece of fiction as it does a supposed historical documentation. From the filmmaking side it strikes a very unique mood that’s as inexplicably haunting as it is serene. Much like the hinted at magnetic force that draws the girls to continue climbing the rock the film floats in front of you in such a way that makes it difficult to look elsewhere. It’s such a calm picture while also relatively spooky due to the depiction of the girls seeming vaguely entranced by the rock before disappearing into nowhere, as well as the subsequent searches by a pair of male characters that witnessed the girls going up the rock before disappearing resulting in difficulty to physically get through what looks like an opposing magnetic force at certain points of the rock.

From the story side the lack of closure and explanation to the mystery works in its favor, even as a fictional work. Typically, when a story comes to a close with a reason the book can be shut, and forgotten. With Hanging Rock the ambiguousness, intentional clues, and very explicit subtext of sexual exploration acting as the driving force of the narrative it leaves itself open to revisitation more so than a standard mystery complete with denouement. Again, like the rock and the mood of the film, the story draws you in to re-explore the hidden pieces you may have glanced past and it’s delivered in such a way that even if you did catch everything you’ll think you didn’t and thus be compelled to start over.

Closure without Resolve

During the time the book was released and discussed, Joan Lindsay never declared that the story was, or was not fiction. She simply let intrigue run its course and it wasn’t until well after the release of the film adaptation in 1975 that other novels and books would be released about the non-resolution to the story and even the supposed, intended, final chapter to the novel that Lindsay removed before publication to heighten the mystery. When the film came out it was one of the first Australian pictures to reach worldwide acclaim and was one of the first steps for director Peter Weir to cross the ocean to Hollywood and create some of the most significant films of the past 30 years – at least one for each decade. Taken on its own, Picnic at Hanging Rock serves as an example of how mood and ambiance can trump explicit content to make an audience feel uneasy; and aroused. Taken in accordance with its cultural impact the film is responsible for making the world aware of Australian film and making Hollywood aware of one of the most interesting and diverse filmmakers of our time. As a work of fiction presented as potentially non-fiction it shows how the predication of success can be exclusive of perceived believability.

This article is based on true events.

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