Director: George Sluizer
Screenplay: George Sluizer, Tim Krabbé
Based on a Novel by: Tim Krabbé
Starring: Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege, Gwen Eckhaus, Bernadette Le Saché
Country: Netherlands, France, West Germany
Running Time: 102 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I’m not one to get as aggressively worked up about ‘spoilers’ as many do, believing that the journey is more important than the conclusion, but it’s always frustrating when a big twist at the end of a film is ruined by someone blurting it out. George Sluizer’s original 1988 version of The Vanishing (a.k.a. Spoorloos) is one such film. It wasn’t an obnoxious movie fan that gave away its disturbing final gut-punch though. The Vanishing is simply famous for it, so it’s been difficult to avoid the ending being revealed over the many years I’ve somehow not got around to watching it. I have wanted to see it though, despite my knowledge of where its story would lead, so with the film finally being given a Blu-ray release in the UK I had my chance at last (though I was sent a DVD to review by mistake – First World problems!)
I’ll try my best to avoid spoilers in my review for younger readers who might not be aware of the film and its fairly well-known twist. More than you might expect is revealed early on though so it might seem I’m launching right into spoiler territory but I assure you I’m keeping details to a minimum.
The Vanishing opens with a young Dutch couple Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) driving through France on holiday. They have an argument after running out of petrol in the middle of a tunnel, but soon make up. They stop at a service station for fuel and a break, but Saskia goes missing just as they’re planning to leave. Rex desperately tries to find any trace of her but fails.
Then the film shifts gear, flashing back to show us how the abductor Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) planned his crime before jumping forward three years, where the film intercuts between both his and Rex’s stories. At this point, Rex is with another woman, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), but the relationship falls on rocky grounds after his obsessive desire to find out what happened to Saskia flares up again after having damped over time. Fuelling this obsession is the fact that Raymond has been sending Rex postcards, repeatedly asking if they could meet at a café in Nimes. Rex is frustrated as the author of the postcards never shows up, but we see that Raymond in fact lives opposite the café and watches from his window. As he observes the desperate Rex, Raymond hatches a plan to get what they both want.
Despite my prior knowledge of the film, it turned out to be nothing like what I expected. A hefty portion of the film is focussed on the villain, rather than the ‘hero’, for starters. This has been done before of course, in films such as the Hannibal Lector series, but the depiction of the sociopathic antagonist is fairly unique. We never see him being violent or even particularly angry. He’s not even completely emotionless like some icy-cold villains. He shows no remorse for his crime, so a detachment is certainly there, but we see him spending a lot of time with his family and living a perfectly normal life, away from his dark obsessions. The film, as such, becomes an examination of the banality of evil.
This doesn’t make Raymond or the film any less creepy or disturbing though. It only makes the character and his actions all the more believable. He’s just a normal guy whose mental circuits have a short somewhere. The film acts as a psycho-drama as much as a thriller in this way, offering up some interesting psychology into the mind of a sociopath and a little philosophy in Raymond’s unusual justifications for his actions. This intellectualising of the subject matter gives The Vanishing a very French arthouse slant (Sluizer was French and the film was a French-Dutch-West-German co-production).
Also helping the film stand out among the crowd is a rich vein of pitch-black humour running throughout it. From what I knew about the film, I certainly didn’t expect so much comedy. Most of it is subtle and probably only classed as comic by those with a very dark sense of humour, but some scenes, particularly one where Raymond accidentally chloroforms himself after sneezing into his drugged handkerchief, are clearly supposed to elicit a laugh. Once again, this doesn’t necessarily detract from the horror of the situation. It only makes it more uneasy and frighteningly human.
There’s a semi-supernatural sequence where Rex has visions triggering a seizure that didn’t fit tonally with the rest of the film, though it maybe helps justify some shocking decisions made by the character towards the end.
Speaking of which, although I knew what was coming, I found the finale truly shocking and deeply disturbing, though it surrounds one of my greatest fears, which helps. Rex’s aforementioned choices in this final act are a little hard to swallow perhaps but there is some reasoning behind them.
Another aspect of the film that marks it out as something special is its structure. The story bounces about all over the place, chronologically speaking, with regular but often quite lengthy flashbacks, as well as a three-year flashforward in the middle of the film. It works perfectly though, never losing track of the thrust of the story or becoming messy. The structure also often reveals mysteries long before Rex discovers them, but Sluizer manages to keep you gripped by leaving just enough un-shown or said. The flashbacks aren’t blatantly signposted with any sort of effects, so they can catch you by surprise and cause confusion for a minute, but it’s always clear where we are in the timeline after a short while.
So, I may have had the ending of The Vanishing spoiled but the approach and tone were a great surprise. Blending tense thriller tropes with black humour and psychological drama, it’s a unique yet still disturbing spin on the missing person movie.
The Vanishing is out on 8th June on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Studiocanal as part of their Vintage World Cinema range. I was sent the DVD version and the picture quality was pretty decent for SD, though it struggled on an early shot of long grass and I spotted some mild interlace lines in (literally) a couple of places, though that might have been caused by my Blu-ray player’s up-conversion. Audio is solid.
Sadly there are no special features at all on the disc, which is a great shame for such a good and well-regarded film.