Friday, April 25, 2008

Iceberg Arena: The Mysterious Events in the Woods; Ambience, Ambiguity and Feminism in Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Innocence (2004)

Katie sometimes complains that I’m too much of a glutton for ambiguity, and its true that I’d probably rather have an unresolved ending than one that is overly pat, violates common sense or play out with painful predictability. Combined with my love of atmosphere, often at the expense of plot development, I’m an easy mark for art cinema. These two elements are central to today’s Iceberg Arena, bridging the art house tradition from Australia’s 1975 international success “Picnic at Hanging Rock” to France’s 2004 sleeper hit “Innocence.”

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.

[Images: Miranda slips up the slope with three other girls in tow.]

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.

[Images: Some examples of the inimitable camerawork born from the Boyd/Weir pairing.

“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.

While “Picnic” could be said to concern what happens after an inexplicable tragedy, “Innocence” take place entirely before an anticipated revelation/tragedy, one that we can constantly sense, but whose precise nature eludes us. “Innocence” makes use of audience assumptions, allowing our imagination to run wild with thoughts of organ harvesting, concubine slavery, plague quarantines and whatever other unfortunate twist we can conceive. The director abstains from tipping her hand or hurrying the assured and intelligent pacing.

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.

[Images: Benoit Debie’s green-black contrasts.]

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.

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” samples its potent mixture of lingering fear and ancient mystery from the friction between native aboriginal mythology and imperialist English culture. (This theme had been explored by Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout” several years earlier and would be addressed more directly in Weir next film, “The Last Wave.”) The upright, proper boarding school with its polished silver and porcelain tea sets, carefully manicured greenhouse and smothering attire of gauzy white dresses, gloves and bonnets are in stark contrast to the harsh volcanic rock.

Weir’s handling of the clash between “civilized” logical Victorian life and the primitive, unspoiled, unfathomable landscape goes deeper than just graphical presentation; the psychological impact of the natural monument clearly unhinges its visitors. The surviving students and staff react with the predictable range of hope, doubt and fear, but some experience such unexpected complications as longing, obsession, hatred, jealousy and suicidal depression. Oddly, it is the ill-fated girls whose reactions are depicted the most favorably, although their final hours of contented exuberance include overtones of sexual awakening and naturalistic pantheism which would not have been socially acceptable.

Both Weir and Hadzihalilovic seem to invite feminist readings. In “Picnic,” the disjunction between wild natural beauty and tamed civilized beauty contains an implicit critique of Victorian repression, as represented by everything from the verbal restrictions to the tight-fitting corsets. What makes the disappearance so distressing is the way it taps a timeless freedom that defies not just social conventions, but physical reality.

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.

[Image: (Bottom) One of the two deeply concerned boys who witnessed the girls climbing up Hanging Rock. His determined, obsessive search for any clue will only yield partial harvest.]

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.

[Image: Miranda in the foreground with her roommate Sara in the background. Sara’s crush on Miranda is a subplot that could fuel a whole other essay.]

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).

The children are largely happy, self-disciplined and free within certain limits, but those limits, the secrecy and the method for funding the facility, etc. compromises any idea of pure benevolence. The two instructors, Eva and Edith, struggle with self-doubt. They are initially hard for the audience to read. One scene shows Edith scientifically sticking pins through butterflies, a symbol for the children. Eva is generally strict and maintains inexpressive poise, but has a tearful breakdown at one point that is never elaborated upon. Both are predominantly kind and caring towards the children, yet whether they are happy themselves is unknown. The grim and shabby maintenance workers offer another challenge to interpretations, since they seem at times to toil voluntarily though there are hints that they are being punished.

Hadzihalilovic decision to not take a definite side is wise. There would not be nearly as much to talk about had she led the audience towards one concrete conclusion or if she channeled the good and evil into segregated vessels. Her handling of the extremely young cast is notable, showing true self-awareness for real world power structures (the relationships between viewer, director, child actresses and their parents). I wouldn’t expect someone married to Gaspar Noe (notorious enfant terrible and cinematic shockmonger) to show such sensitivity and tastefulness on issues like child nudity and exploitation, but she does have a definite gift. The empathy and deference Hadzihalilovic has for her actresses is evident in the film and in the brilliant decision to have one of her youngest stars (age 9?) provide the DVD commentary wherein she innocently (and insightfully!) “explains” the film.

I’m really torn between these two features, both of which easily qualify as personal favorites. They are model examples of how to combine ambiguity and atmosphere, cinematic virtues that challenge the viewer to simultaneously think and feel. Intellectual experiments and sentimental fluff both actively engage the viewer, but neither of them fully addresses the complexity of the audience, who may balance a variety of goals like emotional identification, aesthetic appeal and mental stimulation. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Innocence” are examples of films that provide an entertaining distraction from everyday life, while simultaneously deepening our understanding of it. They share so much in common, both in subject and tone, and yet they have such distinctive deliveries and specific preoccupations. The stories are unique enough that no one should fear that watching one would somehow spoil the other.

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.]


Anonymous said...

Two of my fave movies right here. Great comparative essay. It's all about the atmosphere.

Mad Dog said...

I kinda knew you'd pick that as your winner, although Innocence sounds like something I need to watch, too.

As for ambiguity, perhaps there needs to be a continuum of ambiguous directors like you did with pacing. My pick for most infuriatingly ambiguous would have to be Kiyoshi Kurosawa. That son of a...

FilmWalrus said...

Mad Dog,

Excellent idea for the ambiguity continuum. Just today I was discussing with co-workers about how some ambiguity is provocative while other times it is just the result of a screenwriter writing himself into a corner. I've definitely seen my share of films that were just unresolved messes and lazy attempts at depth.

I can't argue with your assessment of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, though I love him just the same. Alain Resnais and Antonioni will have to go on the list too. The St Louis Museum of Art recently screened a classic ambiguous ender, "Stromboli," which I interpret differently from most critics I've read. Whether or not an "accepted" interpretation should always be adopted is another good topic to get into sometime.

Mad Dog said...

David Lynch deserves a spot somewhere if only for Inland Empire.

FilmWalrus said...

You thought Inland Empire was ambiguous? Have you seen any movie by obscurity master Ron Howard?

Mad Dog said...

"obscurity master Ron Howard"


Anonymous said...

You write very well.