Comments on Picnic at Hanging Rock, a film directed by Peter Weir (1975)

2018.08.23 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. The film Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weir (there is now also a sequel, made for television, 2018), is a spectacular display of signs: every single image, word, or melody seems to count for something. What I present here is a selective commentary.

After Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weir (1975): Irma on the Rock, swaying in an ecstasy that will lead to delirium.
After Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weir (1975): Irma on the Rock, swaying in an ecstasy that will lead to delirium.

§1. An essential “something” that drives the story comes from an idea that is all-pervasive in the “aborigine” cultures of Australia. It is the idea of Dream Time, at least, as understood by the makers of the story, where you communicate with your ancestors while dreaming. Dream Time envelops everything that happens in the story.

§2. In reading Pindar’s Pythian 8, I find that the expression skiās onar ‘dream of a shade’ at line 95 conveys a comparable idea. I have an essay where I interpreted that expression:

§3. I paraphrase here from what I say there (pp. 110–111):

I interpret skiās onar ‘dream of a shade’ as a recapitulation of words spoken by a dead hero about his living son. In ancient Greek poetry, the word skiā ‘shade, shadow’ can refer to a dead person. I suggest that the shade of the dead person is literally dreaming—that is, realizing through its dreams—the living person. In a song composed by Pindar, Pythian 8, the bright occasion of an athletic victory in a mortal’s day-to-day lifetime becomes that singular moment when the dark insubstantiality of an ancestor’s shade is translated, through its dreams, into the shining life-force of the victor in full possession of victory, radiant with divine brightness. It is as if we the living were the realization of the dreams dreamt by our dead ancestors.

§4. Clip 1: “What we see, and what we seem, is but a dream—a dream in a dream.”

In the film Picnic at Hanging Rock, at the very beginning, the voice of a girl intones, off camera, these words that I have just quoted: “what we see, and what we seem, is but a dream—a dream in a dream.” The words spoken by the girl here are a near-quotation from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream within a Dream,” first published in 1849. Right after these mystical words are spoken, we suddenly hear a high-pitched burst of frenzied piping from a Pan pipe, and now we see a girl who is sleeping—and dreaming. She is Miranda (the actor is Anne-Louise Lambert). As the camera keeps looking at what we see, the sleeping Miranda awakens, opening her eyes and then turning her head, now looking straight into the camera. Then the gaze of the camera wanders elsewhere. Soon it is looking at another girl. She is Irma (the actor is Karen Robson). And Irma is looking at herself in a mirror, but then we come to our senses and see that the camera itself is looking at the mirror image of the girl’s face, not at the face of the “original” girl. So we see a mirroring of the mirrored image—a dream within a dream.

§5. Dream Time was an idea that the author of the original story found most compelling. She was Joan Lindsay, whose gothic novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, published in 1967, had originally inspired the film made by Peter Weir. Both the novel and the film focus on the idea of a primal recovery of Nature by Nature, as when ants overrun the angel food cake at a picnic that becomes the setting for a mysterious envelopment of three girls and a woman—or eventually two women—by the chthonic “Rock of Ages” that is Hanging Rock.

§6. Clip 2: “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.”

Dream Time is encapsulated in the words intoned by one of the girls, Miranda, just before she and Irma and a third girl, Marion, are enveloped by the Rock. I have just quoted the words of Miranda: “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.” This wording is like a mystical formula for initiation from one life to another.

§7. For those who may be interested, I cite a commentary, not by me, on the actual place Hanging Rock:

§8. I compare the ancient Greek idea of telos in the circular sense of ‘coming full circle’, as distinct from the linear sense of ‘coming to an end’. This word telos can mean specifically ‘ritual of initiation into a mystery’. Analysis in H24H 13§§10–22and 20§1.

§9. Clip 3: two fragmentary scenes: “The summer will soon be over. … It’s sad, really—like someone dying” and “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.”

This clip, which lasts exactly six minutes, contains two scenes from the original film of 1975 that had later been deleted by the director himself, Peter Weir, when Picnic at Hanging Rock was re-released in 1998—this new version is the authoritative “Director’s Cut.” The total length of the clip is exactly six minutes, within which time (a) the director explains why he had made the deletions and (b) some of his colleagues, including the actor who had played the role of Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), comment on their thoughts and feelings about the deletions. The whole sequence, especially the part that extends from the beginning all the way to minute 4:33, is well worth watching, since the speakers contextualize the two deleted scenes. I will concentrate, however, on the two deleted scenes themselves.

§10. The first deleted scene that we see in this documentary survives in two parts, contextualized by voiceovers from Peter Weir and Anne-Louise Lambert. The first part extends from minute 1:49 to minute 3:00, and I will refer to it short-hand as “Irma in the boat,” while the second part picks up from 3:00 to 3:14, and I will refer to it short-hand as “Irma running along the shore.”

§11. The second deleted scene to be seen in this same documentary is much briefer, from minute 3:54 to minute 4:33. Here we see a congregation in church, and they are singing to memorialize those who disappeared at the chthonic Rock.

§12. Irma in the boat… from minute 1:49 to minute 3:00. Here in this first part of the first deleted scene, we hear Peter Weir explain why he had deleted from the original film of 1975 both the first scene and the second scene in making the new version of 1998, the Director’s Cut. Fortunately, the first part in the first of the two deleted scenes is mostly preserved in the context of the director’s commentary. I must add, in this context, that I find Peter Weir’s explanation disarmingly honest and even moving, even though I personally wish that he had kept the deleted scenes in the Director’s Cut.

§13. Irma running along the shore… from minute 3:00 to minute 3:14. Here in this second part of the first deleted scene, we hear from the actor who had played the role of Miranda, Anne-Louise Lambert, commenting on how much she misses the deleted scenes in the Director’s Cut version. Within the same sequence, from minute 3:00 to minute 3:14, we also get a glimpse of the second part pf the first deleted scene: we see Irma is running along the shore of the lake, which is still glowing in the encroaching sunset.

§14. More on the first part of the first deleted scene… “The summer will soon be over. … It’s sad, really—like someone dying.These words are spoken by Irma. She and Michael, the boy who had rescued her from the Rock, are together in a boat on a lake. It is a beautiful summer afternoon. The scene is evocative of the line “all in the golden afternoon” in the prefatory poem by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865. A key to the meaning of the sequence captured in this scene is the wording that Miranda had intoned earlier as a formula for initiation into her mystery: “Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.” Irma repeats this wording of Miranda to Michael in this first part of the first deleted scene, “all in the golden afternoon.”

§15. After Irma speaks about her feelings of sadness over the end of summer—that it’s like someone dying—Michael stands up in the boat and asks Irma to tell him what exactly happened at the Rock, the place where Miranda and Irma and Marion and their teacher, Greta McCraw, had mysteriously disappeared—and from where Irma was the only one who eventually reappeared, in a most mysterious way. Irma had eventually been found alive by Michael—days after her group had originally disappeared, and she was in a state of delirium. At the time, she could not remember what had happened to her and her companions. Irma had scratches all over her body, especially on her hands, but not on her feet and legs. Contrast Edith, who escaped from the Rock, screaming her head off, just after the other girls disappeared: Edith had scratches only on her feet and legs.

§16. I note that Michael, who had discovered Irma at the Rock, developed a scar on his forehead that matched exactly a scar found on Irma’s forehead. This “stigma” appeared on Michael’s forehead exactly at the moment when he was overcome by a delirious trance at the Rock, just before he discovered Irma lying unconscious nearby. When Michael’s stigma appeared, he was hearing an audio “flashback” of Miranda’s words: “everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.”

§17. Now, as Irma is talking to Michael in the boat about the death of summer and is repeating the words that had initiated Miranda and the others into the mystery of the Rock, Michael suddenly stands up and asks the direct question: “tell me, Irma, what happened at the Rock?” The trigger for the question, which calls on Irma to reveal the secret of the mystery at the Rock, is the death of summer.

§18. I am reminded of the pre-Raphaelite painting by Frederic Lord Leighton, “Flaming June,” which is featured prominently at various key moments of the film. I have shown it before, in a similar context,

“Flaming June” (1895). Frederic Lord Leighton (1830–1896). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Here I see a point of entry for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, as recited by one of the girls at the beginning of the film. The words of the sonnet begin with
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
and end with
“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

§19. We cannot be certain whether Irma answered Michael’s question. She just looks away, and the camera looks away, too. Then comes a fade-out. When the camera rejoins the story, the sun is already setting. The golden afternoon is about to die. The boat is now docked, and Irma is standing next to it, all disheveled. What has been spoken in the interval? We do not know, but Irma looks distraught, and the lovers are no longer lovers—if they ever had been. Irma runs away, along the shore of the lake.

§20. And, as I already noted, with regret, the scene is deleted in the Director’s Cut.

§21.“Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.”
What happens next in the original story of the film is the second of the two scenes deleted in the Director’s Cut. We see here, as I noted already, a memorial ceremony in a church, where the congregation is lamenting the disappearance of Miranda and Marion and their teacher, Greta McCraw, at the Rock. The congregation sings the old hymn, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.”

§22. I am reminded here of the engulfment of Oedipus by a loving Mother Earth in the Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles. Analysis in H24H 18§§40–42.

§23. Clip 4: “Tell us, Irma!”

from minute 1:14:23 to 1:16:32

Irma, having survived the Rock, has “graduated,” and she will now leave the school. She is the “older girl” leaving the “younger girls” behind. Before she goes away, she decides to go through a ceremonial goodbye visit to the younger girls, who are at the moment exercising at the “Temple of Callisthenic” [Commonwealth English spelling]. This pretentious name is meant as a tribute to the sacred space of ancient Greek physical fitness. That is where the younger girls are just now having their “fitness” exercises. Irma enters the “temple,” and she is dressed in red.

After Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weir (1975): Irma in Red, visiting the Temple of Calisthenic.
After Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weir (1975): Irma in Red, visiting the Temple of Calisthenic.

She is now a complete woman compared to the girls or would-be women, who are dressed in white. The tension is electrifying. All the non-initiates, including Edith, the “failed initiate,” are pressing Irma to reveal to them the secret of the mystery into which she had been initiated. The problem is: had she been completely initiated? The scratches on her body had suggested a half-initiation, in contrast with the full initiation of Miranda, who had disappeared for good, and also in contrast with the failed initiation of Edith, who had run away. As I already noted, Irma had disappeared but then eventually reappeared, in a state of delirium that made her forget what happened. But now the younger girls are demanding to be told the mystery of initiation: “tell us, Irma, tell us!”… But the question is, had Irma shared the secret with Michael on that golden afternoon when she lamented the death of summer? Is that why she is now dressed in red?

§24. Clip 5: “Home.”

from minute 1:26:15 to 1:28:03

So, what is the secret of Miranda’s original mystery of initiation? The answer, I think, is to be found in what she says when she says her last goodbye to her friends. We cannot hear her say it, we only see her saying it. The movement of her lips signals the one word she is saying. It is not just one word. It is just one single syllable. You can see it at the very end of the whole film—at the end of the story being told by the film, at the last moment. At that very last moment, the storytelling repeats an earlier moment, freezing the frame to end the story. At that moment, Miranda is seen turning her head around, turning her face away from the camera as she now faces the Rock that we see looming ahead of her. She is never to be seen again by her friends. As she turns away toward the Rock, her long golden hair is swirling in the breeze. Freeze frame. But just before she turns away, her lips move. She is saying something. Just one word. Just one syllable, even. And this syllable ends in what linguists would describe as a bilabial closure… Maybe p? or b? or m?… We can just barely catch, with our eyes but not with our ears, that one single word, that one single syllable, as it passes through her parted lips, which then close. That one word is… “home.”