In Peter Weir’s Australian classic, Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), an injured, delirious Englishman being ferried away by doctors hands over a piece of lace he found on “the Rock,” as the locals refer to it. It is a scrap torn from the dress of one of three schoolgirls who went missing days earlier during a lunchtime picnic, and who all believe are lost, surely dead. This, his desperate look says, is proof the girls are up there somewhere.
Halfway through Otto Preminger’s late masterpiece Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), a distraught mother seizes upon a paper stub that she finds in a wallet, and her eyes widen. It is a repair shop receipt for a doll belonging to her daughter, Bunny, who disappeared without a trace that morning and whose very existence has since been questioned by the police called in to investigate the case. How do you look for someone that no one in London can remember seeing? Ecstatic, she pushes the stub into her brother’s face—material evidence that Bunny is real!—and scampers off into the London night.
Made a decade and hemispheres apart, both films revolve around displaced schoolgirls who vanish, leaving those left behind clutching at crumbs, and to the edges of their sanity.
The title declares the premise: Bunny Lake’s things, toothbrush and all, vanish from her house in the hours after she does, and no record exists of the four-year-old who had just relocated with her mother to London from New York. When Ann (Carol Lynley) goes to pick up her daughter from her new school in Hampstead, no staff or student admit to having seen Bunny. As the police report back to Ann, no one from the bus that morning remembers a girl in a navy pinafore. The genius part is nor do we, as Bunny lives off-screen, conjured as an absence around which Preminger’s narrative orbits. Just as the film’s title shifts in meaning across its 107 minutes, so does it toy with our perception of what is reality and what is fantasy.
By contrast, the schoolgirls of Picnic At Hanging Rock are indelible corporeal visions: angelic innocence in white whose doomed beauty haunts all who see them, as though The Virgin Suicides were set a century earlier in rural Australia. “A Botticelli angel,” remarks one of the teachers of Miranda, their blonde leader. Unlike in L’avventura (1960), Antonioni’s entry to the Gone Girl canon, Weir’s lost girls are everywhere. A flood of photos, flashbacks, voices and reveries occupy the film, which has lingered with audiences since release. In Australia, it has become a cliché to say that Picnic In Hanging Rock haunts the national psyche. Weir’s second feature (and the Joan Lindsay book upon which it is based) have inscribed the land to the point that whether the schoolgirls did historically disappear from Hanging Rock (they didn’t) is often cast into doubt, and visitors cry out “Miranda!” at its peak.
Both films share an ensemble of red-faced school principals, police, grieving loved ones, and a ring of batty back-characters—but it is their disparate settings, each powerful sites, which dictate their mysteries. At the Rock, a number of wristwatches inexplicably stop, girls fall asleep in the sun en masse as if bewitched and four climb higher, deeper, to its crown. The power luring the females onward is suggested to be Hanging Rock itself, a geological formation an hour’s drive from Melbourne, reaching a hundred meters in height, whose ancient majesty and mysticism mocks English discipline.
Rebecca Harkins-Cross’ astounding essay ‘The Shadow of The Rock
’ describes in detail how the Rock was formed from lava that cooled and eroded into an arresting series of bulbous pinnacles, and how for over 20,000 years it served as a significant ceremonial gathering place for the Wurundjeri, Taungurong, and Djadja Wurrung nations, the traditional custodians of the land. While many died of smallpox, or were murdered, the last of the Indigenous population were displaced from Hanging Rock in 1863 by white settlers, less than fifty years before the fictional schoolgirls went wandering. For those watching Weir’s film today, as Australia still struggles to acknowledge its bloody colonial past, the unspoken violence resounds, as does the absurdity of Applewood Hall, surrounded by bush and closed off from the world so its corseted students can be educated in skills such as poetry and ballet.
While less engaged with questions of cultural dislocation, Preminger’s psychological thriller makes ample use of its outsiders’ vantage point onto Swinging London, a society whose rules and taboos are swiftly coming undone, where no one can be sure of anything any longer. A single mother undramatically explains the fact of her illegitimate child—for which, refreshingly, she is not judged—and she even discusses with the local Superintendent (Laurence Olivier) that she considered terminating her pregnancy, at a time when the explicit mention of abortion on screen was virtually banned.1
The filmic possibilities opened up here by Preminger’s re-shuffling of social mores would arguably pave the way for the LSD-inspired utopic visions of Skidoo
As it becomes less certain that Bunny indeed exists, the mood of paranoia wrapping the film only tightens. Bunny Lake Is Missing
becomes a delicious exercise in the tainting of innocence, featuring schoolyard songs that take on an eerie note, a lecherous landlord who flaunts a collection of African fertility masks and a whip once belonging to the Marquis de Sade, and the suggestion of incest which Preminger allows to hang over Ann and her brother Stevie after initially presenting the siblings as husband and wife. The Zombies’ bizarre mid-film appearance, performing their psychedelic sunshine pop on a television in a pub (and also the film’s sublime jingle
), adds to the giddy mayhem, foreshadowing the slippery slope into madness that starts in a doll’s hospital (shot so that Ann, at times, resembles one of the broken dolls herself) and ends in a grand London home with a swing set and an open grave.
While Preminger keeps the unflappable Olivier up his sleeve to reinstate decorum and the triumph of rationality, Weir abandons his lead cop halfway, as though gesturing towards the feeble role of human authority in dominions such as a six-million-year-old rock. While the final chapter of the book upon which Weir’s film was based eventually explains the girls’ disappearance as a wormhole-like portal that sucked the girls away (a twist more at home in a Richard Kelly outing), Weir leaves the mystery open, hanging powerfully over audiences like the Rock itself.
1. Until 1966, the Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry stated that “The subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned. It must never be treated lightly, or made the subject of comedy. Abortion shall never be shown explicitly or by inference, and a story must not indicate that an abortion has been performed, the word “abortion” shall not be used.”