After watching this Dutch thriller, Judge Joel Pearce is very glad that the only thing he's lost recently is his set of car keys.
"My daughter was bursting with pride, but I thought that her admiration wasn't worth anything unless I could prove myself absolutely incapable of doing anything evil. And as black cannot exist without white, I logically conceived the most horrible deed that I could imagine right at that moment. But I want you to know, for me killing is not the worst thing."—Raymond Lemorne
Not to be confused with the critically lambasted Hollywood remake of the same name by the same director, The Vanishing is a thriller directed by George Sluizer that cleverly combines elements of horror, drama and mystery. It is further evidence that we are fascinated and captivated by the evil among us and within us, and it contains enough intellectual ideas for anyone to chew on for a couple days. It can be enjoyed on a more basic level as well, though, making it a great viewing experience for just about anyone.
Facts of the Case
During a bicycle trip through France, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), a young Dutch couple, stop at a rest stop. Saskia vanishes suddenly, leaving Rex with almost no evidence of what has happened to her, and with no support from the local authorities. We soon learn that she has been kidnapped by French Professor Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a seemingly kind family man who has some severe sociopathic tendencies. Rex does not give up hope, though, and the two men eventually meet under bizarre circumstances. The resulting struggle between Rex and Raymond, both obsessed with the fate of Saskia, is both chilling and fascinating.
There are some films that are sufficiently important and respected that it feels odd to critique them. As a result, this will likely be more of an explanation than a review in the strictest sense. As I watched The Vanishing for the first time, I, too, was impressed by many of the things that other critics have latched on to about the film. It is remarkably disturbing, and philosophically challenging as well. It is brilliantly constructed, with a slick narrative structure and enough details to warrant multiple close viewings. It carefully navigates through several genres, with elements of classic thrillers, psychological horror, and mystery. What really impressed me, however, was how accessible it is, even for people who would not normally be drawn to contemporary European cinema.
On the surface, The Vanishing is a very satisfying thriller. The emotional tension runs high from the very beginning. We know that Saskia is going to vanish, but Sluizer toys with us for a while, constantly reminding us that it is coming. Things get slightly stranger once we are introduced to Raymond, but the question of what happened to Saskia and whether or not she is his only victim is constantly present.
The other thing that makes this film so accessible is the way that it connects to things that are universal. Like all great horror, the suspense in The Vanishing comes from fears to which we can all relate: the sudden and unexpected disappearance of a loved one, and the disorientation that comes from being a stranger in a new place, unable to find anyone to help. The combination of these two factors draws viewers into the film immediately. As the focus of the film shifts from the disappearance to Raymond's preparations, a similar feeling of discomfort arises. Raymond seems quite ordinary. In fact, he is quite likable with his family. Any of us could know someone like this. Any of our loved ones could be the victim of something like this. That thought is a horrible one, and one that can linger for days.
In addition to the fear-building techniques, the casting and acting also work on a very familiar level. In most Hollywood films, our preferred actors and actresses all look perfect, which has a tendency to immediately distance us from the occurrences onscreen. Here, though, all of the characters look like completely ordinary people. Saskia isn't some unattainable beauty. She's the attractive girl that we fall in love with in real life. Rex isn't some muscle-bound action hero; instead, he's the friend that becomes obsessed when things go horribly wrong for him. Perhaps more important than the realistic portrayals of Rex and Saskia is the portrayal of Raymond—he isn't an evil looking man in a black hat and a long trenchcoat. He is just a very ordinary looking guy. A frightening looking character can haunt us in our dreams afterwards, but it's characters like this that leave us looking with suspicion at the people around us.
The relationship between Rex and Saskia is also refreshingly realistic. In a Hollywood thriller, a director would usually idealize their relationship, so that her loss in his life would have a greater effect on the audience. Instead of trying to manipulate us in that way, Sluizer shows us the kind of relationship that they really have. It isn't a bad relationship, but it's a long way from perfect. We get to see a fight that they have, as well as the way they are willing to work through that fight because they love each other.
Fortunately, each of these characters are well-performed by the actors that portray them. Each of their actions and emotions are believable. Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu does a particularly good job; Raymond is made truly chilling through his laid-back and understated performance. Saskia doesn't have very much screen time, so it's critical that she be appealing enough to hold our sympathy throughout the film. Johanna ter Steege does exactly that. Gene Bervoets is entirely credible as a man who has become obsessed to a dangerous level. At first, his performance seems to be a bit overboard, but it makes more sense once we have witnessed the extent of his obsessive personality.
While The Vanishing can be enjoyed on a superficial level, viewers that want to dig deeper into what happens throughout the film will be rewarded. While Raymond is obviously both unhealthy and dangerous, many questions arise once we spend some time with Rex three years after the vanishing. He has become so obsessed with discovering what happened to Saskia that he has completely destroyed his new relationship. and is incapable of moving on in other areas of his life. These two portrayals of obsessive behavior are juxtaposed carefully, which complicates the issues of good and evil. For Raymond, the act of abducting someone in the way that he has planned is a largely intellectual pursuit. Without spoiling too many details about the plot, his detailed planning suggests a level of thought and commitment that few people could match. On the other hand, Rex's continual search for the truth has lost any shred of reason by the end of the story, and the lengths that he is willing to go to in order to discover the truth may be just as frightening as Raymond's actions.
What would we risk or sacrifice in order to know the truth about this kind of situation years later? Do we reach a point of asking whether it's worth risking everything for peace of mind? How could anyone possibly walk away from something like that? The climax of this story isn't strong because it has answers to these questions, but rather because it does such a good job of exploring the possibilities. None of us knows what we would do in this kind of situation, and the true horror comes from knowing that we might act differently than we would hope. I wouldn't want to be given the choice that Rex has to make at the end, partly because I fear that I wouldn't be strong enough to make the choice that he makes, and partly because I fear that I would be crazy enough to make that choice. It's a question with as many implications as the red pill/blue pill choice in The Matrix, and it demonstrates a level of questioning that is uncommon in the thriller genre.
The structure of the film also merits a closer look. At first, it is unclear when things are happening, making us feel as disoriented as Rex does. Pieceing together when all of this happens takes most of the film to accomplish, and it represents an important part of the mystery. The timing of the events becomes clear in the same horrible way that the events themselves do, all unfolding as things progress towards the now-famous conclusion, in which everything becomes suddenly and disturbingly clear. This process never feels manufactured or arbitrary, and, once again, deepens the viewing experience. As with The Usual Suspects, a second viewing to unravel the details of the plot is valuable, though not necessary.
Technically, the disc lives up to Criterion's normally high standards. The picture is not reference quality, but it reflects a solid remastering effort. The detail is excellent overall. The sound transfer is as good as can be expected for a mono track. I respect Criterion's interest in recreating the original experience of a film (versus hauling out the bells and whistles), and The Vanishing doesn't lose any of its potency in its original sound format. There are a few scenes that may have benefited from a wider sound stage—especially the infamous ending—but the transfer is clear of any noise, the dialogue is easy to hear, and the music is effective, if slightly dated. The subtitles are timed well and always easy to read.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Far less impressive is the lack of extra features. Unlike Criterion's usual special editions, which are generally chock-full of extras, the only extra available on this disc is the original theatrical trailer. I would have liked to see some discussion about this film, and some comparisons between this version and the remake would have also been fascinating. We have had so many remakes in the last decade or two in Hollywood, and a study between the two versions of this film (featuring the same director) would have been penetrating. What happened with that second version to turn a film as great as this into a disaster? An exploration of that experience with Sluizer would have added a great deal of value to this package. Still, it is one of Criterion's less expensive releases, which makes it somewhat less of a disappointment.
Fans of either contemporary or classic thrillers will not be disappointed by The Vanishing. It has an accessibility that I have rarely seen in philosophically-minded European films, making it a great introduction for people that are interested in extending their cinematic horizons. It also has a knack for asking big questions that unsettle our notions about ourselves and the people around us, making it worthwhile viewing for people who want more than a simple thriller. While it would have been great to see a little more in the way of extra features, Criterion has released yet another disc that deserves a place in any film buff's collection.
Everyone involved in the crafting of The Vanishing is free to go. It is requested, however, that Raymond Lemorne be kept very far away from me and my loved ones.
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