How Ambiguity In Film Can Pay Off For Filmgoers

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is famous for its ambiguity, but that’s a good thing

A still from Picnic at Hanging Rock (from film-grab.com)

Does anyone remember the Criterion Collection?

For a better part of last year, I delved into the depths of one of the greatest film archives. The collection is chock full of incredible titles from across the world. Publishing analysis and reviews of various titles was a blast, getting attention to the Criterion Collection and its films was my goal. Thanks to online services like Hulu, and now FilmStruck, these films are readily available for the “streaming era”.

Sadly, life intervened. Due to a hectic schedule, I put off these reviews. Thankfully, that is all in the past! Starting this week, I look forward to going back into Criterion and sharing the films that excited or disappointed me. Any suggestions? Comments on a specific film? I would love to hear from you in the comments below (or to any piece) or e-mail (which you can find on my Medium page). Now, to this week’s film…

Ambiguous stories are a tough sell. Though an interesting look at the mind of a film’s characters — and even the audience’s mind — ambiguity often leads to outrage. Many who saw Manchester by the Sea — one of last year’s critically acclaimed hits — were disappointed by the unclear ending (a place where ambiguity thrives). I would bet that many filmgoers like or need closure, seeing where a film takes its characters whether that place is happy or sad.

Then there’s the camp that loves ambiguity, where the film is a sliver of a greater universe. These are the films where what happened before or after the film takes place is up for debate. Whenever a film chooses this path and becomes a cultural sensation, message boards, comment sections, Twitter and, perhaps, the dinner table erupt with conversation. Whether bad or good, people entertaining the conversation is exciting. Having a cerebral reaction, on top of an emotional reaction, to a film (or television show, song, book, etc.) makes pop culture exciting.

The film’s Criterion cover

In 1975, the world got just the film to challenge, entertain and frustrate. Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weir, derives from the book of the same name. Written by Joan Lindsay, and published in 1967, Lindsay chose to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, while leaving the ending vague. The film version takes the book’s framework and amplifies the story.

On the morning of St. Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of young women from the Appleyard College in Australia go for a picnic. Their destination is a famous rock formation near their location called Hanging Rock — which actually exists. Once at the picnic, some members of the group notice their watches stopped working. When a small group of women explore the formation by themselves, they enter a trance-like-state. When the group packs up their picnic and returns to the college, the adventurous women remain missing. The search for the missing and answering how and why they disappeared rocks the community.

The most thought provoking aspect of Picnic at Hanging Rock is the combination of surrealism and realism. On top of the film’s period piece look, Picnic at Hanging Rock develops as if the disappearance actually took place. The characters are seemingly taken from the history books, coming to life thanks to Peter Weir’s magical direction. The lush, romantic quality of the visuals fits the time period the film takes place.

The disappearance, which happens early on in the film, is treated as a “McGuffin” to what the film really is interested in saying: how the people surrounding the incident reacted. This focus is seen throughout many films based on real life events: JFK (who cares about the assassination; it’s all about the conspiracy!), Lincoln (again, the assassination is an afterthought following getting the 13th amendment passed) and Public Enemies (how Dillinger survived/get away from authorities is far my interesting than how his murder happened). The emotional toll (or buildup) of a historically pivotal event makes for an interesting film. Having Picnic at Hanging Rock follow those same beats fits the narrative of a narrative film based on a true event.

Mixed with the storytelling beats of a historical event, the film has the qualities of a dream. For starters, people do not disappear for no reason. Sure unsolved mysteries do occur, but somebody knows the answer. Picnic at Hanging Rock offers no solutions. Despite the best efforts of the film’s characters, the mystery surrounding the disappearance remains a mystery when the credits roll.

Though we see part of the women disappearing, the audience never really gets a full explanation. The film acts like a dream: we only get snippets of what happens. Often when awaking from a dream, we only remember memorable aspects — never the whole picture. Picnic at Hanging Rock is as if someone filmed a dream. The impressionistic look and feel to the film’s visuals only add to the dreamy state of the film.

Though at times frustrating, Picnic at Hanging Rock is among the best surreal film watching experiences. With a little more substance than David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, two hits among the most famous of surreal films, Picnic at Hanging Rock leaves the viewer questioning what actually happened and why. What do I think happened? Maybe… aliens? Maybe… the Twilight Zone actually exists? Maybe… Hanging Rock is home to a time portal? I am not entirely sure, but the film does a marvelous job at demanding me to ask questions.

Was this a work of non-fiction? No, but the marvelous direction and plotting feels as if I’m looking back onto one of history’s strangest occurrences.

Someone contact Unsolved Mysteries, please.


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