Analyze This

Director Peter Weir's 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock begins with the words of Edgar Allan Poe: "What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream." Psychoanalysts are interested in dreams because they offer up information on our internal conflicts. Apparently Picnic at Hanging Rock is a psychoanalytical feast.

"This film as a whole may be taken as a dream of an adolescent girl," says George Gallahorn, a psychoanalyst from Baltimore. Gallahorn will be the featured speaker at this weekend's screening, the first in a series called "Psychoanalysts Look at Film" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

All the films in the lineup contain interesting case studies. In Girl on the Bridge, Patrice Leconte's 1999 comedy/road movie, a suicidal woman has a relationship with a knife thrower. In The Postman (1994), exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda gives a shy man advice on how to attract the attention of a beautiful barmaid. And in The Son's Room (2001), director Nanni Moretti plays a psychoanalyst coping with his child's death.

Anne Lambert as Miranda in Peter Weir's haunting 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Peter Weir
Anne Lambert as Miranda in Peter Weir's haunting 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Picnic at Hanging Rock begins on Valentine's Day in Australia at the dawn of the 20th century. The headmistress of Appleyard College, a strict boarding school for teenage girls, takes some students to visit to a nearby rock outcropping. Led by Miranda (Anne Lambert), an alluring blond, four girls decide to explore the rock on their own. Three disappear without a trace.

Through exquisite photography and an unsettling score, Weir (The Truman Show, Witness) gives Hanging Rock a sense of rugged carnality. "The rock is presented as being seductive, frightening and dangerous," says Gallahorn. "People may get lost there because of their carnal wishes."

The movie gives no explanation for the girls' disappearance, save a scream that implies forceful abduction. "The film does what all good suspense and horror films do," says Gallahorn. "You never see the monster. That leaves the monster up to people's imaginations…However, there are clues to the monster's presence such as the stick arrangements in The Blair Witch Project."

At least for Gallahorn, the monster is not a hairy beast that drags the girls off and eats them. "In this film," he says, "the monster is certainly an internal one…The internal monster of adolescence gives hints about its presence with the changes of puberty: change in body shape, the sprouting of hair in previously hairless places, acne."

Picnic at Hanging Rock also examines the repressive nature of Victorian society and how punishment awaits the nonconformist. "The girls engage in an ordinary activity, a picnic," he says. "Those who dared to explore the rock, explore their desires, are punished for this."

But don't take one psychoanalyst's word. See the movie and decide for yourself. To its credit, Picnic at Hanging Rock is open to several interpretations, just like a dream.

Picnic at Hanging Rock screens at 6 p.m. Sunday, June 8; Gallahorn will introduce the film and answer questions after the screening. Girl on the Bridge: 6 p.m. Sunday, June 15, with a talk by Brent Latimer. The Postman: 6 p.m. Sunday, June 22, with a talk by Gemma Ainslie. The Son's Room: 6 p.m. Sunday, June 29, with a talk by Maria Ramos. Brown Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7530. $6.

 
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