What We See and What We Seem Are but A Dream, A Dream Within a Dream

The fascination that some movies have on the audience is magic. It’s not always a question of plot, but of images. Sofia Coppola is a master in creating stories where aesthetic beauty or symbolism are sometimes more important than what actually happens. The American director hasn’t invented this peculiar approach to cinema: many are the masters who used it in the past. One of them is surely Peter Weir, who directed one of his masterpieces – Picnic at Hanging Rock – in 1975. He mainly focused on images, putting dialogues and facts a bit aside. Despite having watched it many times, it still has a mysterious core which definitely feeds on images more than on words – the dreamy atmosphere, the colours [1], the symbolism (connected to St. Valentine’s Day, the day in which the central events take place), the haunting Pan flute of Gheorge Zamfir.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a seminal movie which has inspired many directors and artists. Fashion photography, for example, has totally jumped on the bandwagon of the movie: the soft focus effect, for example, or the special quality of lighting (almost golden, in some cases), can be found in an endless number of editorials. The same can be said for the style of the protagonists: the costume designer Julie Dorsman took Edwardian fashion as a starting point and mixed it with the aesthetic sensibility of the 70s.

I’ve recently come across a very interesting photo homage to the movie by Weir, thanks to my friend Astrid: the photograher, the Italian Mirko Macari, is very talented and has a quirky eye for unusual atmospheres. He set his personal Picnic in local woods and dressed the models like the schoolgirls of the Appleyard College – white dresses with ruffles, flounces and ribbons. You know I’ve got a thing for comparisons, so I’ve had some fun in finding elements of the movie in the photoshoot.

Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) is the protagonist of the movie. She takes this role not only for her function in the story, but because she’s a catalyst of events and the (unconscious) driving force behind what happens. The camera lingers on her, has a loving attitude in portraying her, as if it (and its master, the director) was charmed by her, like the rest of the characters. One of the most famous scenes is set on the sides of Hanging Rock, where the girls go with some teachers to have a picnic: she’s lying on the grass, a magnifying glass in her hand, and examines a flower. This exact moment is presented in the shot by Macari, with some minor differences (the dress, the flower, the umbrella).

A specific action (reading) and a specific object (a book) can often be found in the movie. Both of them are connected to the school setting, but books and their content have a meaning which goes beyond the appearance. The movie opens with girls exchanging and reading Valentine’s cards; during the picnic, art (see fragments of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus) and geometry books are spotted. The contrast between instict and reason are reflected in the story itself: despite the atmosphere of danger and impending doom connected to the ascension to Hanging Rock, some of the girls decide to do it anyway. The shot by Macari summerizes all the reading scenes of the movie.

Another symbolical object that the Italian photographer inserts in one of his shots is a mirror. In the movie, one of the opening scenes – Miranda and her roomate Sara (Margaret Nelson) – are sitting in their bedroom: Miranda is getting dressed for the picnic, while Sara will stay at school, because the headmistress doesn’t allow her to go to Hanging Rock. Miranda is sitting at her vanity table, in front of two mirrors: does this duplicity reflects a hidden (and adventurous) side of the girl?

In general, mirrors are recurring in the whole opening sequence.

The most exciting part of the movie is what happens before the tragedy at Hanging Rock, because from this point of the narration on, the tension will keep on growing, until it reaches the climax. It’s not a case that this part has a few dialogues; Weir focused on details instead (the heart-shaped Valentine’s Day cake, for example, or ants eating the same cake later) and on the girls, who lay on the grass in a languid mood, the same that is hinted at in Macari’s picture and that can be found in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (even in that case, such a mood foresees a tragedy).

Another graphic scene portrays the girls who are ascending the Rock lying on the ground: the reason of their reactions while approaching the Rock remains unknown, and this is another element of endless charm. The audience can only try to imagine what really happened: the director leaves us alone with our doubts. The same scene has been used by Macari for the shot above (in this case, the girls are lying on the leafy ground).

In the movie, the ascension of the girls is followed by behind: the camera is a silent witness of events the rest of the characters are unaware of. At a certain point, this external eye stops following the girls to focus on the reactions to the news of their disappearance: it literally leaves them alone. It’s hot on the sides of the Rock, so the girls put their black stockings off – an action symbolizing their progressive leaving social rules behind and to embrace the savage atmosphere of the place. Macari decided to focus on a detail of this scene, that is the feet of one of the schoolgirls; in his picture, it’s dirty with earth.

The photoshoot by Macari took place in Italy, where landscapes are totally different from those in Australia. This didn’t stop the photographer to give a personal interpretation to scenes of the movie. The one above, for example, tries to reproduce the contrast between man and nature, so relevant in the screencap from Picnic at Hanging Rock. In particular, he focused on that gigantic rock hole, surrounded by a different landscape.

The same approach was used here. The settings cannot be compared (no rocks but a brick wall in Macari’s photo) but the gesture of the girl, leaning on a wall besides her, is exactly the same.

Macari’s photoshoot is an ambitious project, so one may think its assumption (paying homage to a movie through images) is wrong, but I don’t think it is. Cinema is made of moving images, after all, so the idea of the tribute is quite interesting. In my opinion, the outcome is nice, but it lacks the drama and the tension of the movie. The photos have a peculiar lighting (no direct light, a bit dusky), while most of the movie is bathed in a dazzling sunshine, an element which surely influences the process of tension-building. It’s hard not to judge the pictures after the movie, but probably that would be the best approach to enjoy their unmistakable quality.

Source and source.

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7 comments

    1. I ask myself the same question every time I watch it! I don’t know what happened, I still haven’t figured it out, but I’ve realized it’s not so important. The director’s intention is to leave our question unanswered.

    1. E’ stato un piacere scrivere di un photoset così particolare :) Io adoro il film di Weir, quindi non potevo lasciarmi scappare l’occasione di buttare giù qualche riflessione.

  1. An enduring mystery and one that continues to inspire across the arts. While these beautiful landscapes were taken in Italia, ironically they bear great resemblance to the garden of Picnic’s author, Joan Lindsay, whose former home, Mulberry Hill, is located on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia.

    1. Really? This is such an interesting detail. Unfortunately I don’t know much about the author of Picnic, so thanks a lot for sharing.

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