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. Stay with me. 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. Her loved ones never get any answers. The James Bond cliché I'm talking about is the
one where the title character is tied to a chair or some other piece of furniture by a villain. Then the villain, at length, walks Bond through what he plans on doing to him for such a long 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 and/or kick his way out of the situation.
The Vanishing echoes L’Avventura and the recurring 007 scenes 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 Vanishing proves itself better at achieving its end goal than the works to which I’ve compared it. 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 living puzzle, 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, in contrast, is so straightforward it punishes. It's a tense and increasingly frightening story that unforgettably captures, to use the indelible quote from 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 the end, is what got to me 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 Krabbé are a complementary pair. Sluzier does a good job of further capturing the humanity of Krabbé’s original writing — namely the brief, touching 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 then deftly, almost deviously, announces himself both a master of structural manipulation and conversational terseness. The movie is a psychological thriller almost entirely comprising extended 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 and not at all cheeky, 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 man sheerly because he has answers and we want them too.
Together, Rex and Saskia make the feature'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 and/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 it doesn't bring.
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 acts both because he’s bored and because he’s solipsistically interested with what kind of effect enacting those evil acts 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 of a movie ending in more tunnel. But the bleakness is refreshing, speaking to a quotidian 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. The snap usually comes with a cheer of some kind — a relief for the good guys. But in real, not cinematic, life, stories as enigmatic and tragic Rex and Saskia’s are more commonplace. The film is a testament to an imprecise malice always waiting around the corner — a reminder that anything can happen to anyone. A-