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SCREENING ROOM

Revival of 'Hanging Rock' Shows Unique Perspective of Weir

June 25, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Throughout a major, remarkably consistent three-decade career, director Peter Weir has invited audiences to peer beyond surface reality to discover different worlds, whether they may be of the imagination or the supernatural, as a route to self-discovery. This is as true of his eerie "Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975), which begins a one-week revival Friday at the Nuart, as it is of his current hit, "The Truman Show."

Presented in the director's cut with seven minutes restored, in newly remastered Dolby stereo, the exquisite and seductive "Picnic at Hanging Rock," which helped revive the Australian film industry as well as establish Weir's reputation, is cinema at its most evocative. On Valentine's Day in 1900, several students from a posh finishing school went on a forest outing to nearby Hanging Rock, a gigantic volcanic phenomenon sacred to aboriginals. Some inexplicably vanished, others returned with no memory of what had occurred.

Working from Joan Lindsay's novel, Weir displays his already formidable mastery of mood and powers of suggestiveness, with Hanging Rock itself becoming a brooding yet beckoning presence. Set at the end of the sexually repressive Victorian era, "Picnic" is outrageously erotic in its symbolism and implications.

A gardener at the school remarks matter-of-factly about the fate of the missing girls, "They may have fallen down a hole," and he may well be right. Weir, however, suggests infinite, teasing possibilities, suggesting that they fell under some kind of spell related either to the supernatural or sexual hysteria.

While the mystery thickens, the school's stern, tyrannical headmistress (Rachel Roberts, in one of her best roles), slowly becomes unhinged. "Picnic at Hanging Rock" remains a gorgeous-looking, superbly wrought enigma. (310) 478-6379.

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There have been countless killing spree/road movies and a number of pictures about the hilarious realities of low-budget filmmaking, but now first-time writer-director Mark Weidman fuses the two in "Killer Flick" (Friday and Saturday at midnight at the Sunset 5), an outrageous, inspired satire on the ways in which violence and cinema have mutated to the extent that his pack of young filmmakers (Zen Todd, Christian Leffler, Emmett Grennan, Creighton Howard and Kathless Walsh, all terrific) is just as likely to shoot a person with a gun as a camera.

Crossing the desert on the way to Hollywood, where they intend to lasso their favorite B-movie star (veteran Fred Dennis) this group is writing and filming along the way, hoping to incorporate incidents violent and otherwise into a movie intended to glorify them as road warriors as well as auteurs.

(213) 848-3500.

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"Jean-Pierre Melville and the French Crime Film" series is a succession of wonderful, satisfying movies. In the graceful opening sequence of Melville's 1962 "Le Doulos" (The Fingerman), which screens Friday at 7:15 p.m. at Raleigh Studios, 5300 Melrose Ave., we watch a man approach a handsome if shabby 19th century townhouse, standing alone in the deserted outskirts of Paris. A train rushes nearby; there is weak light from ancient street fixtures. The man enters the building and proceeds to the attic, where a fence is disassembling some jewelry in front of an oval window.

Very shortly, the visitor (Serge Reggiani) guns down the fence, steals his loot and buries it by one of the lampposts. Melville accomplishes all of this with such economy, such easy bravura, that the effect is pure joy, and you suspect you're in for a treat.

Once Melville swiftly moves past the robbery, he plunges us into a dizzyingly intricate thicket of betrayals that may leave you confused momentarily--and perhaps longer than that--but also floored by an array of duplicity that is charged with an ambivalence as we realize how provisional the whole notion of honor among thieves can be.

"Le Doulos" offers such a chain of crooks reacting drastically to partial truths that you can actually understand why, according to Melville, that Jean-Paul Belmondo, upon seeing the finished film, was astonished to discover he was playing the title role. Reggiani by 1962 was a well-established, versatile star, while Belmondo was just three years into his enduring stardom. It's a jolt to see him playing a ruthless, brutal heavy.

With the superb "Le Boucher" (The Butcher), which follows "Le Doulos," Claude Chabrol as usual works within the form of the suspense thriller. The setting in this 1970 gem is the quaint town of Tremolat in the Perigord region of southwest France. The town is struck by a series of grisly murders, and Chabrol plays for all it'sworth the ironic contrast between these heinous crimes and this most beautiful of pastoral backgrounds and its friendly, kindly inhabitants.

So simple, yet so profound, "Le Boucher" finds Chabrol mainly concerned with the dualism of human nature and the paradox of love, with its power to destroy as well as redeem.

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