ROCKY HORROR: Newsweek March 5, 1979

"What we see and what we seem are but a dream-a dream within a dream." This line, spoken under a mist-shrouded volcanic cliff, sets the ethereal, mystical tone of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK right from the start. As he did in "The Last Wave," his excursion in to the occult world of aborigines, Australian director Peter Weir is setting you up; behind his lyrical surfaces he means to unearth a reality ordinary folks know not of. "Hanging Rock," made in 1975, leaves no doubt that Weir is unusually good at this sort of thing, one of the strongest talents in the booming Australian movie industry.

The setting is a repressively proper Australian boarding school for girls, run by one Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) an imposing figure of Victorian authority. On St. Valentine's Day, 1900, her white-clad charges go off for an outing at Hanging Rock. Led by the angelic-looking Miranda (Anne Lambert), four of the girls wander into the primeval wilderness. One returns screaming in terror. The other three vanish.

What happened to them on the cliff? The question obsesses the schoolgirls, the surrounding community and the young gentleman (Dominic Guard) who spied on them with erotic interest as they started their ascent. Were Miranda and her followers seeking a sexual apotheosis on Hanging Rock, an escape from the life-denying restraints of the world? After all, just before she disappeared, didn't she enigmatically remark: "Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time"-as if she knew what her fate would be?

Sexual Tensions: Not all of Weir's film is teasing mystifications-it's also a biting commentary on the social and sexual tensions that erupt in the school in the aftermath of the picnic. As the school falls apart, Mrs. Appleyard becomes a figure of pathos, a crumbling disciplinarian with frustrated lesbian yearnings. Gradually, the sadistic, erotic underpinnings of this microcosmic society are exposed.

It's an engrossing tale, and Weir's languid, sun-dappled images are at once seductive and unnerving. Yet there's something hollow at the core, an unearned sense of importance, a reliance on mere mood to suggest mystical depths. Why does Weir-and why should the audience-so easily accept these vanished schoolgirls as adolescent oracles, some sort of pagan Cassandras? The symbolic burden of Hanging Rock inevitably suggests the use of the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India," But the comparison only points up the shallowness of Weir's conception. His movie is stylish and entertaining, but what he is pushing as metaphysical profundity is closer to metaphysical mush.

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