Maybe it was different for Australia? The recollections of Robert Hughes about his teenage years in the 1950s suggests not: the country even lagged behind Britain – it was super-glued to its 19th century imperial past. More British than the Brits.
So, to use the death of Queen Victoria as a metaphor for the fall of an old order, as Peter Weir does in this film, is problematic. And indeed, this attempt at symbolism is a major weakness of this masterpiece. Concentrating too many deaths, and the fall of Appleyard College, into the movie’s final scenes, Weir turns a highly sensitive exploration of adolescence, with tinges of social critique - between the classes, between the Australians and the English -, into a Gothic horror story, of which (just about acceptable) elements are visible elsewhere. He thus closes down its meaning, and domesticates its mysteriousness. Something that was full of ambiguity, and therefore open to wide interpretation, is reduced to a simple treatise on the demise of a sexually repressive society. It is like squeezing the vibrancy of a large festival crowd into the discomfort of a narrow exit way – all that variety of feeling replaced by a monochrome discontent.
In Rohan Mistry’s pedestrian A Fine Balance, a rather ordinary novel becomes unintentionally comic when nearly all its lead characters quickly die in the last few chapters; jumbled together at the novel’s end like kids at the bottom of a slide. The deaths, which also function as symbolic representations,i are too obvious and too many for the book to sustain, and expose its aesthetic poverty. Although this film doesn’t fall quite that far, it comes very close; the very brilliance of the earlier passages highlighting the final weaknesses.ii
“Everything begins and ends at the right time and place.”
This strange idea is at the core of the film; and it belongs to Miranda; a “Botticelli Angel”, as Mademoiselle calls her. What does it mean?
There is a moment in the film, not long after the girls have reached Hanging Rock, that we sense a quite particular atmosphere in Miranda: the febrile seriousness of adolescence of a heightened and very individual kind. There are some children who are enclosed within an otherworldly ambience; which is partly intellectual and partly mystical, and which allows them to inhabit an emotional and mental universe that is different from their friends and fellow pupils. It is a mental space full of meaning and significance, which makes its devotees susceptible to the mysteriousness of their surroundings; even more so when the real world is consciously veiled and hidden, as here at Appleyard College – an extra layer of meaning has been added, which in turn must be investigated and savoured. Otherworldly, they are also bold and imaginative; adolescent seers who explore life with curiosity and detachment. Often such children will be leaders of a small band of followers, who will share aspects of this same emotional and intellectual universe. This moment at Hanging Rock, just after they have arrived, is when we feel that peculiar strangeness, and is the essence of the film, the centre of its brilliance, and the moment we grasp the fanaticism of youth. A time when ideas can be more important than one’s own existence, and curiosity and faith can lead to self-sacrifice. Hanging Rock, the occasion when the world seems to both embody your aspirations and provide an opportunity to act them out. For a brief moment the adolescent becomes an artist and turns their life into a work of art.
“Everything begins and ends at the right time and place.”
This nobility is offset by Edith, an ugly, ungainly and overweight girl, who lives almost entirely in the mundane world, and who cannot share the mysticism of her friends; although she is attracted to them. She follows them up the Rock, but is frightened by its atmosphere: she can feel its power, but is afraid of it, and so runs away, saving herself.
On the way down she passes Mrs McCraw who also feels the pull of the Rock; what we are lead to believe is its sexual power. Earlier Mrs McCraw, the school’s intellectual force (“its masculine intellect”), appeared to rhapsodise over this mighty totem; the imagery she uses for its formation very close to that of ejaculation. Other scenes on the Rock also suggest this sexual meaning; which is too simple, too full of Freud and the 1960s, too tinged with a satiric attack on the repressive British, too keen to attach the story to Victorian values, the real heroine here, that it would like to undermine.
Sex is there, but it would be a mistake to assume that sex is behind all, or even most, of what we see. Sarah is in love with Miranda, and writes her love poetry; but sexual attraction is in the background and hardly intrudes on their relationship (it is the adults who are obsessed by it); for sex is only one of the emotions of youth, which are generally wild and febrile, and which encompass love in all its guises; including the love of art, the intoxication of movement and the desire for freedom. There is also teenage wildness to consider, as well as mysticism and curiosity (intellectual and physical). Adolescence is an unstable continent, a tectonic region where feeling and one’s own being constantly bubble up through the shifting surface. It is existence in its purest, most impulsive, form. To be young is to be full of hardly containable energy, together with an overwhelming need to express it. And this ability to express oneself - to shout and cry, to write and draw, to sing and dance - creates the desire to do so. The instinct of art creates the objects of art. The instinct of idealism leads to idealistic behaviour…
Appleyard College is set up to control and channel these emotions, dampening them down to train young girls to become respectable wives. It is mostly successful. Of course sex is there, but what this film captures is the more complex atmosphere of this time of life, situating it within a specific historical period when a repressive regime, scared of immorality and sexual promiscuity that would ruin a woman’s career, created an environment where young girls’ emotions could be heightened into a form of poetry and pagan mysticism; represented by Miranda, and her two friends, Irma and Marion. Giving themselves up to an idea - of adolescence - they sacrifice, we think, we surmise, we endlessly speculate, themselves to the Rock; and its strange, inexplicable and unconquerable power. Are they lost? Have they died, being kidnapped, raped… the adults will never find out, because they left that childhood territory long ago. They live on the other side of a wide trench that separates the adult countryside from that of the teenager’s; a place where ideas and feelings, all those personal associations and bizarre obsessions, are far more important than the mundane round of school, work, family and social wealth. Now! is everything. Miranda and her friends give themselves up, sacrifice themselves, to a feeling and an idea that:
“Everything begins and ends at the right time and place.”
Miranda is ripe inside her sense of wonderfulness and strangeness. Her life has become a perfect work of art, never again will she be and feel so right… The friends have discovered their life’s purpose, and so they walk into the rock, and are gone.
To bring in the fall of the repressive society, to use the destruction of Appleyard College as a metaphor for the liberating Sixties, is to obscure this simple and penetrating truth – the absolute purity of adolescence distilled in one self-sacrificing moment on the Rock. At the very least it suggests a connection between the adults and the teenagers, which the rest of the film correctly suggests does not exist. Moreover, sex means very different things for these particular generations, with the girls having an innocence denied to the headmistress and her staff; whose overriding interest is in material things. For an adolescent any society can feel oppressive, no matter what premium it puts on virginity, for sex is just one of a number of desires that the teenager wants to express. It will always be unhappy with the adults! who want their children to join them on this side of the ditch, with its safe habits and secure customs. To suggest that the kids are responsible for the decline of the old repressive order is thus to mistake their rebellion – which is about the free expression of personality not the right to sexual intercourse – and to give them far too much power: children do not destroy societies.
Throughout the film there are references to art. The children running down the staircase remind us of Burne-Jones’ The Golden Staircase. Later, we see Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon (but without Jacob and the Angel), while other scenes suggest other paintings I am dimly conscious of…. They have a symbolic role. Gauguin, that wild primitive, and the Pre-Raphaelites, suggesting a spiritual freedom laced up in Victorian costume, with respectable maidens just about to remove their stays.
For Mrs Appleyard, paintings are decorations to be hung on the wall, like photographs of her family – relics perhaps of her younger, freer self; of which we see a glimpse later on. But the Burne-Jones and the Gauguin are part of the film’s texture, they are cinematic references to the original paintings, and suggest something of the adolescent’s need to make life a work of art. Sarah cannot recite a poor and long forgotten English woman poet, set by the headmistress (no doubt because of its uplifting rhetoric, the corset quality of its pieties), but wants instead to read her own love poetry. It is, inevitably, forbidden. For art is to be idolised but not embodied in this kind of education. School a place of a particular kind of conditioned reality; one grown artificially, trimmed and styled like an ornamental garden. The college is a place where you succumb to the demands of the social contract, accepting all the conventions that privilege it over the desires of the individual. It is a lesson Sarah will not learn. When Miranda and her friends remove their black stockings and shoes and enter the Rock they leave that world behind, and reject it totally.
This is what the adults cannot understand; and thus the prolonged and unsuccessful search. A young English man falls in love with the vision of Miranda, and becomes obsessed by her. His obsession, of a different order from theirs, it is much more sexual, although sublimated into love, saves one of the girls. However, even he is unable to find out what happened to them; although younger and therefore closer to their adolescence he is separated by that trench of adulthood… He asks Irma, who has, in typical Freudian fashion, blocked out the memory, what went on at the Rock. There is no answer. Afterwards he leaves for Queensland (exile into the Australian wilds? Or shall we listen just to the words: is he to return to the social constrictions of the Queen’s Land?). This is another crisis for Irma, who we assume is in love with him.
She returns to the school for a short visit, and we are witness to an extraordinary scene, a sort of Lord of the Flies in reverse, where it is Piggy who leads the attack: the repressed tension arising from the loss of their colleagues breaks out into hysteria as they scream and shout at Irma. No-one, it seems, can live with the tension of not knowing what has happened. These school children are adolescents too, but they lack a certain quality, the elevated strangeness and intelligence of Miranda and her friends, and while in awe of them when alive they now resent the survivor; taking their revenge on Irma who is weak, and without defences. They will grow up to be good wives of small town bankers and provincial officials. For them the school has done its job, and well. Another reason why the metaphor of decline does not work.
Can a film be a masterpiece despite its mistakes? There are even problems with the music. Much of the pan pipes are very evocative and fit the film perfectly; but the more electronically processed music overwhelms it, from time to time.
Can a film still be a masterpiece even with so many mistakes? Yes: it can. The best scenes, which make up most of the movie, have extraordinary emotional power; and are brilliantly shot, with a painter’s eye. I am thinking in particular of the early scenes where there are brilliant evocations of group movement: as the girls run together, or congregate around each other, or stand in a line to lace up each other’s corsets…. Other scenes are like paintings. In Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon, Jacob and the Angel are replaced by a gaggle of geese;iii the latter a visual equivalent and comment on the fore-grounded group of girls. There are many such intoxicating shots. To single out one at Hanging Rock: Mademoiselle with a parasol is looking up at Miranda, while just behind her in red is Mrs McCraw, who is reading a book under her parasol; a large expanse of rock in the background; the other girls circling around. Each shot would make a fine Pre-Raphaelite or Symbolist painting. And yet the print is old and faded… it is itself an antique. It even broke down during the showing. What a metaphor!
Or did the projectionist have the same thoughts as me?
(Review of Picnic at Hanging Rock)
[i] The characters represent difficult aspects of India’s culture and history.