Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975. British Empire Films Australia
The story begins on the music of Gheorghe Zamfir. I could recognise his pan flute anywhere. And I couldn’t imagine Picnic at Hanging Rock without his music. And it truly is incredible how the music works so well, given that it was not composed specifically for the film, and how appropriating this music to the film, to a completely different context, connotes something so poetical and mysterious – it’s the uniqueness of Gheorghe Zamfir’s music that does that. Accompanying the voice-over opening, “What we see or what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream”, it is the transfixing music, as if humming from another dimension, that sets the tone for and will contribute tremendously to the magical and otherworldly experience of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. It is the story of a fictional mystery that took place in central Victoria at the turn of the twentieth century. During a school outing in the Australian countryside at Hanging Rock, three schoolgirls (including the pivotal character Miranda) and a chaperone from an all-female college go missing leaving behind no clues. Just one of the girls, Irma, is found, but she does not remember anything of what has occurred.
Much remains unsaid in Picnic at Hanging Rock, and it is this blurred sensuality and disquieting and provocative feeling of hidden truths that remain unlocked that give the film its tremendous and lasting power. But if we turn our attention to the costumes, created by Judith Dorsman, they reveal much more than the facts and the dialogue. Film costumes are never clothes, and costumes are not synonymous with fashion. They have the purpose of character development within the narrative, employing elements that make references to the psychology and motivations of the characters. It’s a shame that today the production companies and the marketing teams put such an importance on using brand name designers for the costumes, focusing on the relation between costumes and consumer behaviours rather than on costumes as a foundational element of a film.
In Picnic, so much attention is placed on the girls’ appearance when they get ready for the outing. It’s all about the idealisation of femininity. “What we see and what we seem”. Everyone is watching, looking at each other, helping each other dress in innocent complicity and conceal every bit of flesh with long sleeves and gloves (which, under the headmistress Miss Appleyard’s firm instructions, are to come off only after the carriage taking them to the picnic has passed through the nearby town and they have escaped the townspeople’s watchful glares). They are all dressed in pristine white, but not in identical dresses, each one carrying some kind of trait of the character wearing it. But it is the dressing-up itself – the girls read Valentine’s messages aloud (it all happens on Valentine’s Day, which in Australia falls in the harsh summer), they wash their faces with rose water, they lace each other into corsets, signaling both confinement and liberation – that gives way to something much more significant. It’s like a rite of passage into maturity, into womanhood.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975. British Empire Films Australia
There is a dark-edged innocence to these Victorian times broderie anglaise dresses. Clothes become symbols of innocence, repressed sexuality, desire, time for change, everything played out on the verge of the supernatural. Miranda’s belt, for example, stands out even for an untrained viewer’s eye. It has a butterfly-shaped buckle, a symbol of a beautiful and brief life, as Anne-Louise Lambert, who played Miranda, explained in an interview for the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. “Miranda’s favourite flower, the daisy, symbolises purity, joy and innocence,” as described in a presentation of the aforementioned Archive. The recurring daisy motif appears on her machine-made cotton lace trim on her dress’s neck and sleeves. The restrained use of lace, frail, translucent and ethereal like a butterfly wings, and “the dress’s lightness and movement in relation to the actress’s body create an image of transitory beauty.” It was so light and airy, Lambert remembered, “it was like being naked”.
The girls are wearing black stockings and black pointed boots to their white dresses. When the three girls leave the group in their attempt to further explore the Rock, they take off their stockings and boots and wrap them around their waists. There is something freeing and mystical about their look walking like that, wrapped in the afternoon dizzying sunlight. After Irma is found, it is whispered that she was no longer wearing her corset. Then, when she comes to say goodbye to the other girls, because in the aftermath of what has happened she will not return to the college the following year, she is dressed in vibrant scarlet, in stark contrast to the virginal white blouses that the others are still wearing.
As she is heading for the Hanging Rock, Miranda looks back to wave goodbye to the French teacher, and the latter remarks: “Now I know that Miranda is a Botticelli angel,” her eyes hovering over her art history book, thus identifying her with an imaginary, idealised vision of beauty and becoming the film’s essence. “Miranda is not as much a character but a quality, an essence, an idea,” Anne-Louise Lambert referred to her character, “and that quality and essence talk about something otherworldly”. We do not wish Miranda to be explained, just as we do not wish the film, and what happened to the girls, to be explained. The film has endured by not answering our questions, and Miranda remains somewhere out there, this eternal youth to be dreamed about, by not being found. Gheorghe Zamfir’s haunting Miranda’s theme, “Doina: Sus pe Culmea Dealului”, takes us on this journey into the mystic, seducing us into this Neverland only accessible to those who truly believe, touching the depths of our human existence and of the mystery of life. As stated by director Peter Weir, according to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, the music’s pagan qualities tapped into the great unknown of the country at the time the story was set and provided a contrast to other themes in the film, such as European notions and concepts of time, culture, cultivation and civilisation.
This summer we’re channelling: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark at 40
This summer we’re channelling: Bette Davis in The Letter