A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
On a drowsy St. Valentine's Day in 1900, a party of girls from a strict boarding school in Australia goes on a day's outing to Hanging Rock, a geological outcropping not far from their school. Three of the girls and one of their teachers disappear into thin air. One of them is found a week or so later, but can remember almost nothing. The others are never found.
On this foundation, Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975) constructs a film of haunting mystery and buried sexual hysteria. It also employs two of the hallmarks of modern Australian films: beautiful cinematography and stories about the chasm between settlers from Europe and the mysteries of their ancient new home.
The movie, which has been long out of release and unavailable even on video, has been restored in a new "director's cut'' that, unlike most revisions, takes out footage instead of adding it. Weir has pared seven minutes from an already lean and evasive film. The result is a movie that creates a specific place in your mind; free of plot, lacking any final explanation, it exists as an experience. In a sense, the viewer is like the girls who went along on the picnic and returned safely: For us, as for them, the characters who disappeared remain always frozen in time, walking out of view, never to be seen again.
The movie is based on a 1967 novel by Joan Leslie, then 71, who presented it as fiction but hinted that it might be based on fact. A cottage industry grew up in Australia about the novel and the movie; old newspapers and other records were searched without success for reports of disappearing schoolgirls. Much was made of the fact that the movie is set on a Saturday, and Valentine's Day did not fall on a Saturday in 1900; did the girls disappear into another time line? Were they raped by two teenage boys who were also on Hanging Rock that day? Did they simply fall into a crevice? What about the girl who was found alive a week later? She had lost her shoes, and yet her feet were not injured by the sharp rock paths. Did she levitate? There is even a book, The Murders at Hanging Rock, that explains that the disappearances were fiction, but nevertheless offers several theories, including UFO abduction, for what happened.