I was watching THE VIRGIN SUICIDES the other night for the first time in a decade or more when it occurred to me there are some striking similarities between Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film and Peter Weir’s PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK from 1975. Though these similarities are more thematic than narrative, they bear exploring, and while I’m sure I’m not the first person to make or discuss this connection, I am the first person working for OPS to do so, so I’m going to ride this wheel like I invented it.
Narratively, as mentioned, the films don’t have a lot in common. THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is a suburban drama about a quintet of repressed schoolgirls who, as the title indicates, end up killing themselves in a quite elaborate display of sororal solidarity, while PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK is about a group of Australian schoolgirls and a teacher who disappear mysteriously and without a trace while at the titular locale engaged in the titular activity. As those descriptions reveal, both films are about adolescent girls, and both involve their particular tragedies, but how they tell their stories is completely different. What is not all that different is what these films say along the way and how they present their central characters to be both victims of and culpable in these tragedies.
To begin with, the way both groups of girls are dressed – in white (or lightly-colored) billowy dresses or nightgowns – paired with the soft lighting and occasional soft focus they are presented in, makes them dreamlike, ghostlike, as though they are already spirits when we meet them. This gives the girls a transitory vibe, as though they were never really here, it makes them emblematic of loss and reinforces that their purpose is being gone, being dead.
This is a standard theme in popular culture (American, at least), the idea that a young, beautiful female, usually blonde, is the worst possible victim of violence because such an archetype represents innocence, purity, and everything that is wholesome in our collective estimation. TV especially loves this idea: see Laura Palmer on TWIN PEAKS, or Lily Kane on VERONICA MARS, or Alison DiLaurentis on PRETTY LITTLE LIARS. Like these, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK aren’t so much about what happened to their respective girls and why, rather they are about the ramifications of what happened to the girls, how their absence affected the people around them. In the case of THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, the story is narrated by a grown version of one of the boys who lived in the neighborhood with the Lisbon sisters, and we see the grown-up version of Trip Fontaine (played by Michael Pare after Josh Hartnett) reflecting on his relationship with Lux (Kirstin Dunst) from what appears to be some kind of rehab facility, an unspoken aftereffect of how that relationship ended. In the case of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, the disappearance occurs within the film’s first act and what follows isn’t so much an investigation in the legal sense as much as it is a series of personal reactions: Michael, the handsome Englishman lunching at the rock when the girls went missing, becomes obsessed with discovering the truth, to the point he nearly dies; Miss Tumley, another teacher, resigns in shame; the headmistress Mrs. Appleyard loses her stiff upper lip and descends into a bottle; and when a survivor is found alive but with no memory of events, her classmates turn on her, blinded by their own fear and lack of understanding. Furthermore, both films open with voiceover, which draws attention to the artifice of the medium from the get-go: these are stories to be told, stories to be heard, stories in which the girls are but catalysts to the real narrative, which is about how the girls’ demise has affected others to the point they must share these stories, or perhaps more accurately, be relieved of the burden of them.
Once the characters are established narratively and to an extent emotionally in the audience’s understanding, the films veer off into their separate storylines, but their themes stay aligned. Both deal with the oppression of young girls socially and sexually by such formal systems as family, religion, school, and every place the three intersect; both deal, in essence, with the lengths strong-willed, righteously-rebellious youth will go to in order to experience typical teenage independence; and both center around the hidden language and inherent mysteries of adolescence, that time of life when we are neither children nor adults and have not a foot in either, instead we drift like spirits between the two phases, waiting for body to catch up with mind and the world to stop instructing and start respecting.
Where the films differ most is in their respective disclosures. THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, obviously, makes direct allusion to its tragedy in its title, while PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK hides behind a deceptively peaceful title, one that does not, as does the other, invoke images of dead girls, but instead of a tranquil, beautiful afternoon out in nature. There is a slight atmospheric shift that comes from the mortal connotations of “Hanging” and the hard, sharp aural end of “Rock,” but for the most part PICNIC is more insidious than THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, and indeed it revels in its narrative lack of certitude and closure where the other film takes pride in its openness.
Ultimately, the unification of the films’ themes comes down to one’s interpretation of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and whether you believe the girls’ fate atop the rock is the work of willful desire, murderous intent, or even supernatural forces. It breaks down (very basically) in one of two ways: if you believe the girls in PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK were murdered, or disappeared by supernatural, or otherworldly, non-natural forces, both films become examples of innocence corrupted by an extreme manifestation of patriarchal oppression, in this case either at the hands of a young woman driven mad by said oppression, an unknown other whose predation would make them seem masculine, or god-like forces beyond man, also seemingly masculine by their selection of victims. If you believe the girls of PICNIC orchestrated their fates collectively, either by offing themselves or succumbing to forces willingly, then both films become examples of extreme defiance of patriarchal oppression. In choosing death, it isn’t the death that’s important, it’s the choice. Either way, the films separate and together are rejections of the sublimation of female adolescence and the masculine need to retain for purposes of control the little girl in the young woman. These films empower their victims by injecting them with will, by putting them – in the case of THE VIRGIN SUICIDES clearly, and in the case of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK possibly – in control of their fates.
The Lisbon sisters kill themselves. The schoolgirls walk, albeit in a trancelike daze, to their mysterious end on Hanging Rock. These girls are lost, yes, but they threw away the metaphorical maps themselves and blazed trails that only seem to lead somewhere “lost” to those of us not on them, those of us left behind to tell their stories.