A Film by George Sluizer
The Vanishing
The Vanishing
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George Sluizer’s 1988 film The Vanishing (Spoorloos) occupies a rather unique spot in contemporary cinematic lore. The story of a young Dutch man Rex (Gene Bervoets) whose girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) disappears while they’re vacationing in France, and who spends the next three years searching for her, The Vanishing was an international cult hit, spreading by word of mouth and nearly unanimous praise from critics. Its fame rests largely on the penultimate scene, a horrific fusion of dreams and phobias, in which Rex discovers the fate of his beloved. Audiences were chilled. Hollywood, eyeing a slam-dunk, decided to do an English language remake in 1992, hiring Sluizer himself to direct the adaptation of his own screenplay. The movie starred Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, and Sandra Bullock, and was more or less faithful to the original until the finale, in which the terrifying quasi-dream was, to no one’s surprise, substituted with a hero’s ending. Critics reviled it; audiences stayed away. The movie sank in the noisy, pathetic way in which Jeremiah Chechick’s botched Les Diaboliques remake would nearly three years later. (Here’s hoping that Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, a remake of the Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes, won’t suffer a similar fate.) Its good name smeared, The Vanishing, bold, intelligent, and genuinely creepy, will forever be linked to its turkey of an American cousin.

Unfortunate association aside, the original remains a highly watchable piece of entertainment now made available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. Based on the novel The Golden Egg by Tim Krabbe, the movie opens as our happy couple, chugging along nicely in their beat-up sedan, discuss a nightmare Saskia had in which she was trapped inside of an egg, a golden one. Suspended in the egg and bounded by darkness, she senses another one moving towards her, and with it, complete annihilation. Further along the journey, Rex and Saskia run out of gasoline in the middle of a tunnel. They quarrel and Rex storms off, leaving Saskia searching hysterically for a flashlight. Rex returns with gasoline, but Saskia is gone. Driving out of the tunnel, towards the white light, Rex finds Saskia waiting for him. They agree not to fight anymore, at least not while on vacation, and while at a rest stop, they frolic lovingly in the parking lot. Saskia goes inside to grab a Coke. She never returns. Amid the throngs of tourists all attuned to the live Tour de France broadcast on the radio, Saskia seems to have been swallowed up unnoticed. And so Rex’s search begins.

Thinking about the movie now, it’s hard not to notice the foreshadowing Sluizer and Krabbe have laid before us. Actually, it’s hard not to notice it while you’re watching the movie. Subtle it is not. Saskia’s egg dream foreshadows the scary tunnel sequence which is a prelude to her rest stop disappearance. Later, Rex has the same dream. If you connect the dots, you can pretty much surmise Rex’s ultimate destination, not to mention Saskia’s, which is not to say that the movie is predictable, but it is cunningly schematic in its construction. By dropping so many clues so early on, Sluizer would seem to be letting the air out of his own tires. He even introduces us to Saskia’s abductor within the movie’s first ten minutes. (He’s the bourgeois Frenchman, bearded but not mustached, who feigns a broken arm at the rest stop.) But the movie works, curiously enough, and is even suspenseful, partly because all the pieces don’t connect right away, leaving us in a state of semi-confusion as people and places slowly and chillingly sort themselves out.

The abductor is named Raymond Lemorne (morne being the French word for dreary) and is played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, whom you may remember as the real Martin Guerre from The Return of Martin Guerre (remade in 1993 as Sommersby starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster). Lemorne is indeed a melancholy fellow, prone to spending long hours by himself on the highway while his wife and two daughters carry on with middle-class life in their well-appointed Parisian apartment. A chemist by profession, Lemorne seems terminally distracted, no more so than when he concocts a seemingly impromptu screaming contest for his confused family at their rural retreat. His purpose is soon revealed: Lemorne is planning to abduct someone and the retreat would provide the ideal location to keep his victim. It’s isolated and heavily wooded -- a place where no one can hear you scream. Presented as a kind of extended flashback, Lemorne’s elaborate scheme gathers psychological weight as various elements of his life, particularly an incident from childhood, present themselves as fodder for his ultimate plan. By the time we return to Rex’s story, three years later, we know Lemorne well enough to fear him, and perhaps more importantly, to respect him for his intelligence and infinite patience.

DVD cover artwork for The Vanishing.
[click photo for larger version]

Coming to terms with Saskia’s death after a three-year, highly publicized search, Rex is suddenly drawn back into the vortex when Lemorne tracks him down in his native Amsterdam. Betting that Rex’s curiosity will far outweigh his anger, Lemorne invites him on a car ride back to France, where he will reveal the circumstances of Saskia’s death. The French title of the movie is L’homme Qui Voulait Savoir, or The Man Who Wanted to Know, and indeed Rex’s curiosity gets the better of him, though not before he administers a few punches and kicks to the stomach. The long car ride is an eerie piece of prolonged suspense and is the best sequence in the movie. Lemorne relates his life to Rex, who listens with discomfort but also some fascination. Why has Lemorne chosen this moment to appear? What does he want to reveal? Who will have the final say?

Like Rex, we want to know. But Lemorne is in complete control here, and we can only surrender ourselves to his plan. The final scenes live up to their hype, though in this DVD release, they are marred by an unfortunate technical error. (These scenes, which occur at night, experience a flickering discoloration caused by the subtitle overlay. The glitch may vary by system.) The DVD also includes the movie’s French theatrical trailer, a droll little montage whose juxtaposition of bourgeois life and horror will remind a few of you of last year’s superb thriller With a Friend Like Harry. Like that film, The Vanishing feels like it's from another era, an era in which movies like Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques and Renee Clement’s Purple Noon worked up a sense of dread in their audiences and then floored them with what seemed like an impossible conclusion. The real terror in these movies was the realization that murder lurks beneath our lives, and that if we choose to ignore it, it might just go away. Or not. It all depends on how much you want to know.


The Vanishing is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer (aspect ratio 1.66:1). In French and Dutch with optional English subtitles. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.