Johanna ter Steege
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
The Vanishing March 3, 2020
he Vanishing” (1988) is like “L’Avventura” (1960) mixed with one of the more frustrating tropes from the James Bond series, only better. The film fortunately isn’t committed to sexy ambiguity in the way “L’Avventura” was, and the 007-style trope it uses for itself pays off, that is if you consider profoundly depressing conclusions analogous to a pay-off. The conceit of “L’Avventura,” mostly, is that a woman
disappears after she and some friends take a boat trip to a secluded island. No one knows where she went or how she disappeared, and neither her loved ones nor us ever get answers. The James Bond cliché I’m talking about is the one where the title character is tied to a chair by a foe, and the villain, at length, walks Bond through what he plans on doing to him for such an exorbitant amount of time that the British spy is granted more than enough of a window to get the ropes loose with a gadget MI6 recently gifted to him and punch his way out of the situation.
“The Vanishing” echoes “L’Avventura” and the recurring 007 sequences in two ways. The first is that, at the beginning of the movie, a woman named Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), the girlfriend of the film’s protagonist, Rex (Gene Bervoets), disappears without a trace after the couple stops at a rest area during a road trip. Three years later, a sociopath with a difficult-to-look-at chin beard named Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) tracks down Rex and announces that he knows what happened to Saskia but that Rex must go on a car ride with him to find out what happened to her. (Raymond kidnapped and, spoiler alert but not really, murdered her.)
The movie proves itself better at achieving its end goal than the works I’ve compared it to. “L’Avventura” uses the disappearance of a character as something of a device. That film, as written and directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, seems to have been crafted for us to analyze like a rebus, to view as if it were an allegory for something deeper. And the James Bond platitude is so contrived that no tension can be eked from it. “The Vanishing,” by contrast, is so straightforward that it’s punishing — a tense and increasingly frightening story that unforgettably captures, to quote the writer Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil. With concurrently excruciating and shrewdly revealed detail, the feature walks us through a crime and its aftereffects with such nonchalance that the nonchalance, by its end, is what got to me the most.
“The Vanishing” has been directed by George Sluzier and written by the latter and Tim Krabbé, the journalist who wrote the book, 1984’s “The Golden Egg,” the movie is based on. Sluzier and Krabbeé are a complementary pair. Sluzier does a good job of capturing the humanity of Krabbé’s writing — namely the brief development of Rex and Saskia’s romance during the first act, which is crucial in getting us to become just as obsessed with the mystery as Rex — and making it even more vivid. Krabbé deftly, almost deviously, announces himself both a master of structural manipulation and conversational terseness. The movie is a psychological thriller almost entirely comprising long exchanges of dialogue; there are arcs to the conversations, to be sure, but Krabbé’s writing is so fluid that we can’t tell until after the movie exactly what he’s up to, or how he’s achieving what he’s achieving. The third act, which is fundamentally the aforementioned 007 thing blown up, is almost unbearably suspenseful, and also presents an agonizing quandary. We just as much want Rex to bolt as we want him to unwisely stay with this merciless, dangerous sheerly because he has answers and we want them.
Rex and Saskia together make for the movie’s emotional center. Bervoets and Steege, respectively, ingrain in the characters an everyday likability we immediately recognize; their warm, then boiling, performances provide exactly what the film, which would otherwise be cold to the touch, needs. This is just an ordinary couple in love put into a thriller plot that this time around isn’t interested in seeing them become unlikely heroes or too-good-to-be-true survivors. The ending of “The Vanishing,” which I won’t reveal, is extra crushing in part because of what they bring.
But Raymond is the movie’s most captivating character. With a family at home, and plenty of financial stability, he is the embodiment of Arendt’s on-the-money, everlastingly provocative idea. He commits evil both because he’s bored and because he’s solipsistically interested with what kind of effect it will have on him. (We find out that, to Raymond, destroying lives provides him with nothing except the ability to, after he’s committed atrocities, think to himself, “I really am a sociopath.)
“The Vanishing” is Sharpie-black dark — a tunnel ending in tunnel. But the bleakness is refreshing, speaking to an everyday truth we don’t usually see in the movies, which tend to lean toward optimism. In thrillers like this one, there’s a catharsis — a rubber band snap of sorts — that follows the painful ratcheting up of tension that takes up much of the running time. But in real — not cinematic — life, stories as enigmatic and tragic Rex and Saskia’s are far more commonplace. The film is a testament to the malice always waiting around the corner — a reminder that anything can happen to anyone. A-