Monday, June 28, 2010

Missing Persons

Film: Picnic at Hanging Rock, L’Avventura (The Adventure)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television (both films).

I’m not prone to gushing about products in general. Something has to be truly exceptional for me to get all mushy-headed about it. If I’m getting exactly what I’m paying for, that’s not really worth laudatory praise. I’m close to giddy with what I’m getting from NetFlix, though. Not only can I get about 80% of the remaining list on NetFlix, I can get a bunch of them instantly on the laptop or through our Wii. Even better, if the movie I want doesn’t appear on the queue for the Wii, I can place it in the queue on the laptop, then watch it through the Wii. Technology is great when it works. Many of the streaming movies feel like odd choices, which is great. It’s not just the newest and biggest—there are plenty of obscure gems on the streaming list. Yesterday, for instance, I watched pretty much all of the Firefly television series, followed by Serenity. This is why I did not update yesterday.

Seeing Picnic at Hanging Rock on the queue was a pleasant surprise. I queued it up while pairing socks, and after a time, I forgot about pairing the socks and instead concentrated on the film. This film is both a great example of a period piece as well as a disturbing mystery. The whole thing centers on the Hanging Rock of the title. This is a massive outcropping of stone vaulting several hundred craggy feet into the air in Australia.

At the turn of the last century, the students and some of the faculty at a British all-girls’ school in Australia plans a day out to visit the rock. They are warned not to get too near it as there are poisonous snakes about as well as nasty ants. Most of the girls go, but Sara (Margaret Nelson) stays at home under the guidance of the school’s owner and mistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts). It becomes evident that several things are at work here. Sara is opposed to authority, punished because she refused to memorize a particular poem. Sara might be (read: is) rebelling against Mrs. Appleyard’s authority. It’s also quickly evident that Mrs. Appleyard dislikes the young orphan. It’s also quickly evident that Mrs. Appleyard dislikes the young orphan. The reason why is a little trickier.

It’s hinted in the beginning that Sara may be having a lesbian relationship with another girl at the school. This other girl, Miranda (Anne Lambert), is the school treasure, loved by one and all. While Sara sits punished at home and dreaming of her dear Miranda, Miranda and a trio of other girls—Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis), and Edith (Christine Schuler)—go trekking up the rock, eventually followed by a teacher. Only Edith returns.

This sequence is to my mind the most puzzling as well as the prettiest in the film. The three disappearing girls—Irma, Marion, and Miranda—are all beautiful and depicted as ethereal, almost unearthly. All four of the girls fall into a swoon, but it is the three who, socks and shoes removed, wander away, leaving the pudgy, homely Edith to sit and scream after them.

What happens next is difficult to explain. Two young men who saw the girls walk by are questioned, and their answers feel suspicious, almost forced and badly memorized. One of these young men in particular is obsessed with finding the girls, notably Miranda. It’s notable that he walks off from his friend when the girls go past. Did he follow them? Did he molest them and/or kill them? These questions aren’t answered. Irma shows up a week later, in shock and dehydrated, but otherwise fine. She has no memory of the past week, has no idea how she got where she was found, and cannot recall what happened to the other girls.

What’s hushed up at the school is the fact that Irma returned without her corset, implying strongly that it was removed, further implying the possibility of molestation. Did the young man remove it? Did the other two girls?

The school begins to fall apart at this point. Not only are the girls missing, but many of the parents of the other girls have stated that their children will not be coming back after the end of the term. As her school crumbles around her, Mrs. Appleyard takes out her frustrations on Sara, first claiming that her tuition has not been paid, meaning she can no longer take classes like dance lessons. Second, she says that if the bill is not paid, Sara will be returned to the orphanage, a place that Sara speaks of only in hushed tones.

The end result of all this, in something that has seemed like a theme for what I’ve been watching lately, is a movie that presents a great number of questions and answers none of them. However, unlike those films that present dilemmas that can be discussed and social problems that must be solved, Picnic at Hanging Rock’s questions are simply about itself. Those things left unanswered are the unanswered questions of the mystery surrounding the disappearances. Like so much of real life, there is no resolution here, and the story doesn’t so much end as stop.

*** SPOILER WARNING ***

Miranda, Marion, and their chaperone are never found. Mrs. Appleyard decides that Sara must go back to the orphanage, and on hearing the news, Sara throws herself out a high window into the greenhouse below, killing herself. Mrs. Appleyard claims that the girl’s guardian came for her, but when told of the girl’s death, she is already clad in mourning attire. The film ends with a voiceover stating that Mrs. Appleyard’s body was found a few days later at the foot of Hanging Rock, with the determination that she slipped while climbing it. Did she? Or did she jump? Or was she pushed by the spirits (or reality) of the missing girls?

*** END SPOILERS ***

Ultimately, this is a film that is beautiful, but also frustrating.

We stick with a similar theme with Antonini’s L’Avventura (The Adventure). Two women are going on a five-day boat cruise with a group of people. Anna (Lea Massari) is meeting her boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), who she hasn’t seen for a month. Her friend is Claudia (Monica Vitti), who is going along for the ride.

Anna’s and Sandro’s relationship is troubled, mostly because of their month-long separation. Anna wants very much to be with him, but complains that she also wants to be alone and without him. Being apart for a month has gotten her used to being alone. In short, she’s confused and doesn’t know what she wants.

On the boat, the group goes for a swim, but one of their number spots a shark. Everyone makes it to an island. After a siesta, the group discovers that Anna is missing without a trace. They scour the island for her, but to no avail. It is as if she has simply disappeared completely.

What happens next is that Claudia and Sandro become intrigued with each other. While they both search for Anna, they discover a mutual attraction that both excites them and fills them with guilt. Claudia attempts to get away from Sandro, but they keep ending up at the same places with the same wealthy, banal people, and eventually, nature simply takes its course. Claudia spends the film happy and guilt-ridden, excited by Sandro and disgusted by his womanizing. She’s guilty not because Anna is missing, but because she is secretly pleased that now Sandro can be hers. At one point, she whispers “Mine…mine…mine…” in his ear as they roll about on the ground.

The biggest knock on this film is that honestly, not that much happens. Anna disappears, Sandro and Claudia attempt to find something together (and may by film’s end), and that’s pretty much it. This emptiness of plot seems to symbolize quite a bit, though, and was certainly intentional by Antonini. For a film that stretches nearly two-and-a-half hours, very little of import seems to happen.

However, this is symbolic of the lives of the people here. While they are all wealthy and seemingly happy, they are also all empty. All, including Anna, Sandro, and Claudia, are burdened with shallow, unfulfilling relationships. All of them appear willing, able, and ready to cheat at the drop of a hat or a skirt. On the surface, it appears like hedonism, but beneath, it doesn’t rise to that level. It’s more like they are all trying to fill up the emptiness of their lives with anything and anyone they can get their hands on. Anna’s disappearance, in fact, doesn’t give them much to live for, either. While Sandro and Claudia appear to be searching diligently for her, this doesn’t stop them from trysts at virtually every possible opportunity.

In short, Anna disappears, and the world of these characters is unchanged. The world would similarly be unchanged if any of these people similarly vanished and were never heard from again. Slow paced, but interesting almost in spite of itself.

Why to watch Picnic at Hanging Rock: Trancey, dream-like qualities and a great story.
Why not to watch: So many untied threads.

Why to watch L’Avventura: Metaphors abound
Why not to watch: Not much happens.

2 comments:

  1. Reading your review on L'Aventura was an Eureka moment. This makes quite a lot of sense. These people truly live pointless lives. I am not sure I like the movie better, but at least it makes sense now.

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    1. I didn't hate this and I don't understand the massive acclaim for it, but I did think it was kind of interesting. Kind of. It's one of those movies that's more interesting as an idea than an actual fact.

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