May 2, 2013

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1969-72) put an image in my mind of Australia as a "good place," where "boys could hug and kiss," where same-sex desire was strong, same-sex romance open and passionate.  Ten years later, in college, I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977). They only added to the mystique.

Picnic is set at a prim-and-proper girls' school in wild Victoria, Australia in 1900.  It's Valentine's Day, the heart of summer, and you can practically feel the oppressive heat.  And the repressed desire.  The landscape aches with it.  The girls sit around gazing moon-eyed at each other and reading love poetry before heading out in a carriage for a jolly picnic at Hanging Rock, a interesting geological formation.  They are chaperoned by two teachers.  Since it's a hot day, they are permitted to take off their gloves.

They pass young, handsome, gjfted-beneath-the-belt, but rather fey Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard, who played a gay preteen in The Go-Between) picnicking with his uncle and aunt. He looks surprised and disconcerted at the sight of the feminine invading his domain.

19-year old Dominic Guard was known primarily for The Go-Between (1970), about a teenager who facilitates an illicit romance between the older sister of his buddy (Richard Gibson, left) and the cad-next-door.  Later he had a substantial career on British tv, and became a child psychotherapist.

Back to the girls ambling toward Hanging Rock.  Michael's valet, Albert (John Jarratt), a rough, macho sort, leers at them from not far off.  In those days, upper-class men often paired with working-class men, making them secretaries or valets as a screen (think of Maurice, or Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings), so I implicitly thought of the two as lovers.

This was the second screen appearance of Australian actor John Jarratt (born 1951), but he was busy afterwards, starring in We of the Never Never (1982), Crime of the Decade (1984), Midnight Dancer (1988), and many other movies and tv series.  Most recently he appeared as a grungy slave trader in Django Unchained.  He also starred in the stage comedy The Sum of Us, about a man and his grown-up son, both looking for love (the son is gay).

Back to Hanging Rock: The girls picnic on the grass, but something isn't right.  They feel uneasy. The air is thick and heavy, alive. Time seems to stand still. Suddenly four girls and a teacher stand up in unison, as if on cue, and climb the face of the Rock.  An outcast girl follows. She calls to them, but they don't answer.  They climb higher, move out of sight.  And vanish forever.

Michael becomes obsessed with finding the girls, and he and Albert return to the Rock to search.  Then Michael disappears.  In a touching scene, Albert finds him, delirious, and carries him down the face of the Rock in his arms.  He doesn't remember what happened.

Were the girls kidnapped?  Did they fall into a crevass?  Were they engulfed in the Dreamtime?  There is evidence for all three, and all three are disconfirmed.  Their fate remains a mystery (the original novel tells us what happened). We are left with the image of girls reading each other love poetry, and Albert carrying Michael in his arms.

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