Both films are literary adaptations that concern all-girls schools (almost no male characters in either) and feature nature as a prominent narrative and thematic component. They are both non-traditional mysteries that linger over moments of ethereal beauty and rely on a tension whose source and intent is maddeningly difficult to trace. The two works relate the indefinite interior realms of the heart and mind to the primordial potential within nature and myth. Their use of directed ambiguity keeps the viewer anchored and invested with the story, while asking them to think more about the implications than the final answer. Both films stay with the viewer long after the screening, and though they may initially cause frustration, I’ve known several occasions where people changed their opinion upon later reflection.
In “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” a selective all-girls finishing school at the turn of the century takes a field trip to Hanging Rock, a towering stone formation in the Australian wilderness. The girls are warned not to go exploring, and so they spend most of their trip pleasantly idling away the daylight with detached repose. Bored and irresistibly drawn to the uncanny monolith, four girls scale Hanging Rock despite their orders. They are led by Miranda, the most beautiful and distant of the students, and they are strangely affected by the mountainside. As the field trip ends, their reserved mathematics teacher, Miss McCraw, notices that some of the girls are missing. She goes searching for her charges, but neither she nor two of the girls are ever seen again. The remainder of the film follows the search efforts and aftermath, with particular focus on the way that the incident gradually seeps into and corrodes the formerly comfortable school, its remaining students and the anxious staff.
Much like the lost girls and a pair of local lads that spied on their fateful hike, the camera itself is drawn back to Hanging Rock again and again. Cinematographer Russell Boyd assists immeasurably in bringing out the intangible magnetism of the site. Rather than playing on deep shadows and dark recesses the film features an afternoon glow in which the sunshine seems suspended amongst the unassuming trees and weather-smoothed boulders. He favors observational long shots, often with unusual framing or hazy, indefinite shapes (like tall grass or tree trunks) left out-of-focus in the foreground. There are frequent digressions away from the characters, in which Boyd and director Peter Weir indulge in brooding nature photography set to haunting passages from Romanian panpipe and classical piano.
“Innocence” also focuses on the members of a women-only education facility, but its primary unsettling setting is on the school grounds themselves while the time period is more contemporary (possibly even futuristic). The school consists of five “houses” where the girls board in a largely self-governed manner. There is also a central manor where they take science and dance classes. The buildings are connected by unpaved electrically-lit paths through lush forest where the children are allowed to play and swim, but are prevented from leaving by imposing stone walls. The activities of the enclosure are much more overtly odd than “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” New students (age 5) arrive in coffins carried in through underground tunnels. The freshmen arrivals are given red ribbons, while the older girls chronologically span the rainbow up to violet (age 11). We learn that the oldest girls disappear the day before the arrivals and much of the film’s intrigue lies in discovering the truth behind this and other peculiarities.
It’s clear that some menace, however indefinable, taints the idyllic and nearly carefree existence of the innocent children. Once again the cinematography is key in shaping our impressions. Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic rarely gives us odd angles or aggressive camera movement, but cinematographer Benoit Debie emphasizes the otherworldliness of the outdoor scenes with highly-saturated, vivid greens and conservative lighting that lets darkness pool in the lines and seams of the mise-en-scene. Unmotivated shots of the landscape are used less frequently than in “Picnic,” but they have a similar rhythm and pregnancy of symbolism that makes them disproportionately powerful (especially a leitmotif of frothing water). These moments participate in a gradual maturation of the narrative that is sympathetic to the girl’s plight to the point of protectively hanging back from the ominous truths prickling our curiosity.
An important part of the ambience in Hadzihalilovic film comes from the densely layered non-musical soundtrack. Thick room noise mixed with faint buzzing, humming, rumbling and occasionally insect sounds and rain patter allow even the quietest scenes to take on moods and tensions that undermine any sense of ease. The effect is more subtle than “Picnic,” where the music adds a fondness even during disturbing events and a nostalgic tone even though the perspective is in the present tense. In “Innocence” the sound emphasizes space and emptiness; it seems always to cloak an eminent danger that is silently stalking its prey.
“Innocence” leans heavily on European fairy tale iconography like dark woods, young children, dubious caretakers, butterflies, burning pyres, old-English manors, rowboats, etc. One reoccurring image that is particularly evocative has a young girl in white Victorian finery walking down a forested path at dusk. Though the sequence might remind us of anything from a Grimm’s fable to a sentimental postcard, Hadzihalilovic adds a disconcerting touch: modern electrical lighting that dangles from the branches.
If it were boys who had gotten lost it would fit into their expected gender role as pioneers, explorers, dare-devils and conquerors. It disturbs the locals that a quartet of young maidens go traipsing through nature, not as some manly territorial quest or proof of courage, but on some anonymous voyage of discovery and oneness. That they should deprive their would-be male rescuers of any restoration of normality is a double affront. It may be that what haunts the survivors most potently is not the memory of the pretty youths, but the spirit of primordial abandon that still emanates from Hanging Rock. It’s as if the girls, finding even their corporeal bodies to be too repressive, discarded them like they do their shoes.
There are still problems with any feminist analyses of “Picnic,” most noticeably the inaccessibility of the girls as fully-realized characters (they are described with detached idolization as Botticelli portraits and goddesses, but rarely allowed nuanced self expression) and the somewhat archaic and unquestioning implication that women are intrinsically more in tune with nature.
I find “Innocence” to be slightly more modern and provocative in its interrogation of gender politics. The near-total absence of men (more so than even “Picnic”) leaves more room for exploring the roles and relationships of women. There are three divisions within the enclosure: the children, their two teachers and a support staff of elderly crones that manage the cooking, cleaning and maintenance. Each of these factions offers plenty to ponder, especially in light of the ending (which won’t be spoiled here).
I guess I have to quit stalling and make up my mind. Current winner: “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” Still, that’s no excuse to pass over “Innocence.”
[Image: The winner.]