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The Ambiguity of “Picnic at Hanging Rock”

How Ambiguity In Film Can Pay Off For An Audience

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 filmgoers like or need closure, seeing where a film takes its characters, whether that place is happy or sad. If they do not have it, then the film will always feel incomplete for them.

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 is up for debate. Whenever a film chooses this path and then becomes a cultural sensation, message boards, comment sections, Twitter, and, perhaps, the dinner table erupts with a conversation regarding the film’s meaning or what happened. Whether bad or good, people entertaining the conversation is exciting. Having a cerebral reaction, on top of an emotional reaction, to a film makes pop culture exciting.

In 1975, the world got just the film to challenge and entertain audiences. 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 teenage girls from 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 girls explores the formation by themselves, they enter a trance-like-state. When the group packs up their picnic and returns to the college, the adventurous girls 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 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 period the film takes place.

The disappearance, which happens early on in the film, is treated as a “McGuffin” to what the film 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 more 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 girls disappearing, the audience never really gets a full explanation. Picnic at Hanging Rock is 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. 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 happened and why. What do I think happened? Maybe… aliens? Maybe…Hanging Rock is home to a time portal? I am not entirely sure, but the film does a marvelous job of demanding me to ask questions.

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

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