Haunted Blondes

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

illustration by Brianna Ashby

One of the deepest movie-watching experiences of my life happened in the wee hours after a party. I came home slightly buzzed but too keyed-up for sleep. As so often happens in these situations, I craved something to smoke. With no cigarettes on hand, I settled on a pinch of weed tucked into the bowl of a pipe. Still in my cocktail dress, I settled onto my couch, patiently holding the marijuana smoke in my lungs using my 20 dollar dab pen accessory as I flipped on the TV and scanned the titles on my Netflix Instant queue.

Choosing entertainment while high takes a certain discernment. Stereotypically, the more music and color there is—and the less plot and dialogue—the better. I’d had good luck with Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. Despite resembling a failed WB teen drama pilot, there was no resisting its Beatles soundtrack, even when the lyrics were coming out of Bono’s mustachioed mug. Sometimes, however, the “more color, more music” rule could backfire—as when I put on Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. After 20 minutes of flashing lights and frightening oscillations, I had to turn it off lest I give myself a panic attack.

So that night, I sought a comfortable middle ground somewhere between the familiar and the unexpected. I found it in a straw-colored window displayed by my Roku: Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. I’d never seen it, but I was aware of its influence, namely upon the Rodarte house of fashion and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. I figured it would be an undemanding murder mystery—set in an Anne of Green Gables world and wrapped up with lots of pretty cinematography—so onward I clicked. The drug began to wrap its soft, sleepy hands around my brain and my eyes felt the dry prickling of the high to come. The stereo sent out an ominous rumble. Hanging Rock was in sight.

And then, the flutes played.

Some films have made me think, some have made me weep, some have simply kept me from being bored for two hours or so. Few films, though, have slipped so entirely under my skin—and changed the way I experience the world—as Picnic at Hanging Rock. Weir’s bridal-veiled lens distilled a summery languor that my thirsty eyes drank like Chartreuse. The more I watched, the drunker I became, until soon the gray branches of the eucalyptus trees surrounding Hanging Rock swayed like the arms of Matisse’s lithe dancers. “We shall only be gone a very little while,” Anne-Louise Lambert’s luminous Miranda promises, but I knew that I was lost forever. I fell asleep not long after those three girls (and the incongruous Miss McCraw) disappeared. I reawakened to the silence of the Netflix menu screen. I turned off the TV, took off my dress, and went to bed.

Sunday morning, I never came down. I felt as if I were still dreaming. Like Miranda on that sun-dappled Valentine’s Day morning in 1900, I blinked awake and felt as if something momentous might happen. Over breakfast, I managed to find an mp3 of “Doina lui Petru Unc,” the panflute air that made me a reluctant fan of Gheorghe Zamfir (and which, to this day, inspires a Pavlovian reaction within me whenever I hear it). If I put it on repeat—which I shamefacedly admit to doing, often— I’m quickly surrounded by a green vortex of lorikeets. Every single time. I smoked the rest of the weed and watched Picnic at Hanging Rock two more times that Sunday, back to back. And then I watched it every day after, high or not, for weeks.

I struggled to hold onto Picnic’s nameless, numinous mood for as long as I could. Though the film as a whole is a beautiful mystery, the marrow for me was always the first thirty minutes or so—right up until Edith Horton’s piercing screams. After that, I didn’t much care about how or why the four women vanished. The obsessions they engendered in those left behind seemed petty in comparison to Hanging Rock’s grand mysteries. Perhaps that is why Peter Weir, in the Criterion director’s cut of the film, removed subplots and scenes that added more to the plot-heavy second half of the film. Much like Michael Fitzhubert, the awkwardly genteel English lad, once I saw those white petticoats swishing through the dry forests of Hanging Rock, all I could do was follow. I wanted to succumb to whatever pull it was that drew those girls bonelessly to the ground in a mystic swoon. I longed to follow them around the next bend in Hanging Rock.

My serene stoner picnic was increasingly interrupted, however, by a burr in my sock: pathetic, prissy, plain Edith Horton. The spell cast by Miranda’s Botticelli hair, waving like the aureate grasses of Adelaide, was broken every time I encountered Edith’s simpering pout. God, why did she have to go along?! Dumpy, stumpy, whiny Edith, the ultimate harshener of mellows. How could I zone out to the Rock’s subsonic thrum when she was always chattering on about how “nasty” everything was? I found myself wanting to slap her (like Mademoiselle de Poitiers does near the film’s close), though Edith’s only sins were being chubby and outspoken.

That little burr pricked harder when I went on to read Picnic’s source material, Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same name. Weir’s film elegantly elides what Lindsay’s novel rather bluntly states: ugly people are stupid, selfish, and to be karmically punished; beautiful people are good, kind, and destined for great things. After years of reading and watching texts that give lip service to the adage “Beauty is skin deep,” it was shocking to witness such blatant aesthetic prejudice. Over and over, Edith is described as “silly” and “fat” due to her “helping herself lavishly to cream.” The joy her peers experience at Hanging Rock is portrayed as completely “beyond the understanding of Edith and her kind, who early in life take to woollen bedsocks and galoshes.” The film underlines this comparison through Tom, the laddish stable boy who gives a crude running commentary on the four girls as they venture to the Rock. He refers to Edith as “the fat one,” while he luxuriates in describing Irma’s curves and curls.

Like Tom, the novel revels in descriptions of Irma: “[r]adiantly lovely at seventeen, the little heiress was without personal vanity or pride of possession.” Irma’s beauty is apparently so great that it helps her appreciate all the more the beauty of others, as when she enjoys “a sharp little stab of pleasure” every time she looks upon Miranda’s “calm oval face and straight corn yellow hair.” Irma is so selfless, so desirous to see “everyone happy with the cake of their choice,” that she even goes on to generously wonder why “God made some people so plain and disagreeable and others beautiful and kind like Miranda?” As if to prove Lindsay’s point, the film portrays Irma as infinitely patient. She cradles Edith’s head in her lap and strokes her hair when Edith becomes upset during their climb up the Rock. Contrast this with the scene days after the incident, when de Poitiers and the chief of police question Edith about the missing girls. Edith’s recalcitrance is shameless compared to Irma’s tearful remorse.

The more I pulled at that recalcitrant burr, the more things unraveled. Edith’s bespectacled moon-face irritated me because she reminded me of myself at the age of 13. I was just as socially inept as she, bumbling into conversations held by former elementary school friends who had grown into adolescent popularity while I, acne-faced and loud, found myself alone. I was too clueless to tell from their arch smirks and rolled eyes that I wasn’t welcome—until it was too late. She wasn’t the only character I felt I knew, however; Marion and her senescent doppelganger, Miss McCraw, fascinated me as well, somehow managing to escape the beautiful/ugly dichotomy by being the brains of Appleyard College. I like to think that both of them were welcomed into the Rock’s mysteries by dint of their intelligence.

But then there’s Miranda, the beautiful yet vacuous center of Picnic at Hanging Rock. As much as I love to look at her, I could never seem to grasp onto her as a believable character. She’s not meant to be one, really. Both Lindsay and Weir portray her as a cipher: a sweet, inscrutable sylph onto whom the other characters project their hopes, fears, and dreams. She isn’t even given the humanity of a last name, aside from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of a missing persons poster at the film’s end. She is forever just Miranda, only Miranda, as if she were an ethereal sprite without origin. While none of Picnic’s characters are very nuanced, we’re at least given some kind of insight into their personalities: Marion the brain; Irma the funny, compassionate heiress; tyrannical control freak Mrs. Appleyard; good-hearted yob Albert Crundall and his doomed, orphaned sister, Sara. All that we know about Miranda is that she is kind. Any more, and she would seem too human, too specific.

Miranda is one in a long tradition of blank, blonde girls at the heart of a mystery, the granddaughters of Vertigo’s Madeleine Elster. The Virgin Suicides is a particularly interesting exegesis on the archetype, replicating Miranda into not one but five ethereal lovelies onto whom every boy in suburban Grosse Point projects his fevered adolescent longings. The closest we get to the Lisbon girls are the objects they’ve touched, transformed into fetishes of feminine mystique: a diary, a tube of lipstick, a KISS record. The real tragedy of Coppola’s film isn’t so much the deaths of the five girls, but the fact that we’re never given any real idea of who they were, or what interior trauma drove them all to suicide.

There are moments of truth, such as when the neighbor boys watch Lux’s short, unsatisfying sexual encounter with a Burger Chalet employee on her roof. The boys’ retort of “That’s it?” likely echo Lux’s, as life proves disappointing and over all too quickly. Yet these scenes are fleeting, crowded out by far more scenes of the sisters languoring picturesquely in their house and yard, all in seeming homage to that same golden hour glow that Weir used to capture his lost girls over twenty years before. Both directors’ cameras linger on their girls’ peachy skin and soft, downturned gazes—and both refuse to interrupt scenes of such beauty with the complication of the girls’ human misgivings. Instead, Coppola provides Air’s “Playground Love” as the perfect accompaniment to the boys’ dreamy escape into Lisbon fantasyland, much as “Doina lui Petru Unc” provides the backdrop to all that hangs over the Rock. And while I enjoy both films, they come all too close to the empty beauty of a perfume commercial: a blankness meant to draw my desire.

Yet there are cinematic blondes who refuse this blankness. One can’t mention blonde and absent ciphers without considering the archetype’s apotheosis: Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks. Whether it’s her smiling prom queen picture or the shot of her naked corpse, she is the ultimate screen of projection, and we learn about each character in the show by scrutinizing what they beam onto her: lust, shame, envy, hatred, love, curiosity. And yet we never know her—her hopes, her dreams, her fears—until the prequel, Fire Walk with Me.

I suspect that one of the reasons Fire Walk with Me tanked at the box office—and earned so much critical ire—was because David Lynch dared to show Laura as an actual person. We see her weep with terror, laugh at inappropriate moments, and transcend her tortured existence within the velvet-hung walls of the Red Room. In short, we watch the mystery of Laura thoroughly demystified—even parodied, as in the awkwardly hilarious scene where she tries to smoke while simultaneously putting on a ridiculous white satin teddy. Sadly, mystery often triumphs over truth, at least when it comes to popular entertainment. Fire Walk with Me was shunned by audiences because, ultimately, few wanted to know what really happened to Laura Palmer. It was easier to watch the investigation of her murder and its aftermath than to witness the unspeakable suffering of her death first hand.

I own copies of both Picnic at Hanging Rock and Fire Walk with Me. They’re among my favorite films, yet I’ve watched Fire only once or twice, while I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat down for PicnicFire earns my feminist respect for getting down in the trenches with Laura, and for showing just how much pain she suffers because people can’t see past her beauty. But at the end of the day, I’m no better than the denizens of Twin Peaks. I want to capture the cryptic pleasures of beauty and make them stay, and so, like Twin Peaks’ evil BOB, I return, again and again, to the scene of the crime, to try and relive that crystalline moment when there was nothing between me and what I saw. Beauty is hard to remember, while truth—like Edith’s pale face, or Laura Palmer’s agony—is never forgotten.

I will watch again.