I love the moments in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) when time seems to get blurred: they’re catalyzed by the characters’ proximity to the outcropping of the film’s title, where three adolescent girls and their teacher go missing while on a Valentine’s Day picnic. The closer the characters get to the heart of the rock, which figures as a kind of labyrinth (one character explores it by leaving a pieces of note-paper behind him like a trail of breadcrumbs to mark his path), the more disoriented they, and the film, become. It is as if their encounters with the rock trigger a tear in the fabric of space and time, a crevasse into which they fall.
Set in Victoria, Australia, at the turn of the century, the film stages the picnic as a symbolic clash of nature and culture, the mystery and danger of the rock standing opposed to the repressive nineteenth-century codes of nearby Appleyard College (a contrast already suggested by William Ford’s painting At The Hanging Rock [1875, below], an inspiration for the 1967 Joan Lindsay novel on which the film is based). As one of the teachers, Miss McGraw, notes, “The rocks all around, Mount Macedon itself, must be all of 350 million years old.” Hanging Rock represents the specter of Australia’s pre-colonial past as well as the expanse of geologic time, in the grand scheme of which the lives of the Appleyard girls, and maybe all of human history, are no more than a blip. The rock also exercises a sexual pull on the girls, who take off their shoes and stockings (and perhaps their corsets) as they venture into its recesses and are swallowed up. But they go to their deaths serenely, as if in a trance, like the willing participants of some ritual sacrifice.
Weir uses superimpositions and slow motion to convey the sense that time is out of joint on Hanging Rock (the pocket watches of Miss McGraw and others literally stop while they are in its presence—“something magnetic,” Miss McGraw supposes). The final shots of the film, which are step-printed to almost dizzying effect, culminate in a shot of the angelic, lissome Miranda as if frozen for eternity. In these moments Picnic at Hanging Rock verges on the psychedelic, and we’re made to realize that the film is as much an experimental film as it is a costume drama.