The Vanishing

78/100
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu and Johanna ter Steege in The Vanishing

What scares you the most? If you chew on that question for a while, then imagine a narrative that gets you to that terrible place, your story might be a little like the one in The Vanishing. Completed in 1988, this downbeat thriller didn’t make it to the U.S. until a couple of years later, when it coincidentally landed in New York within weeks of The Silence of the Lambs. The Vanishing isn’t, strictly speaking, a serial-killer movie like Silence, but it shares that film’s deep interest in the psychopathology of its villain. Like a good (and by “good,” I mean “lurid”) true crime book, its interest is similarly piqued by the painful, quotidian details of an abhorrent crime.

The Vanishing begins with a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, on vacation in France. As they drive, they play word games, they bicker about whether the tank needs to be filled, and they talk about dreams. They stop at a gas station for rest and refreshments and then — after a bare 15 minutes of screen time — she’s gone. Gone as in vanished, as if into thin air, after stepping inside to buy some soft drinks. Just when you think the film has little to do but settle comfortably into a kind of detective story, with Rex gathering clues that put him on the trail of Saskia’s abductor, it switches gears completely and reveals the perpetrator as comfortable family man Raymond Lemorne. In an extended flashback, Raymond hatches and rehearses his plan for kidnapping a woman, tracking the expected traveling time for a comfortably choloroformed victim, measuring his pulse rate under stress, and trying out incapacitating moves on his own daughter. After a sudden, multi-year flash-forward, the film spends the balance of its running time moving back and forth between parallel nonlinear narratives, from Rex to Raymond and back again, before bringing them together for a perverse, low-key pas de deux that moves the film toward its inexorable conclusion.

The Vanishing subverts the expected narrative mode of the whodunit by turning its attention to Saskia’s abductor before said abduction even takes place. Raymond is introduced as a serious-looking but anonymous fellow driving a late-model family car and affixing a fake cast to his right arm — a small thing, but clearly nefarious in context. More details are filled in. Raymond teaches chemistry. He once dove into cold water to save a little girl from drowning. He has a wife and two children and a country chateau far enough from the neighbors that he’s sure they can’t hear the screaming. Is he sympathetic? No — well, nobody looks at his professorial demeanor, calculating mindset, and overgrown shrub of chin hair and thinks: psycho killer, c’est moi. But he’s credible. His life is quiet and comfortable enough that you can imagine his bourgeois lifestyle generating a kind of privileged ennui that gives wings to his demons. The film goes to great lengths (maybe too great) to posit the kind of pretzel logic that could lead a demented but thoughtful man to commit heinous crimes.

In a clever reversal, Rex is clearly the more unhinged of the two. Obsessed with Saskia’s disappearance, he is still plastering the city of Nîmes with “Have you seen this woman?” posters years later. He has a new girlfriend, who seems lovely, but she’s alienated by his behavior, insisting at one point that she has no interest in being part of a menage a trois. (On a repeat viewing it becomes clear the third party is Raymond, not poor Saskia.) He has ample reason to feel guilty. On the day Saskia disappeared, the car had run out of gasoline on his watch, and he had abandoned her at a dangerous spot in a dark tunnel, ignoring her cries for his return. It’s a failure of character that he never recovers from. His betrayal revealed his great egotism, and it’s not grief that drives him later as much as an desire for knowledge that overrides his concern for his own safety. He must know, he declares, what happened to Saskia Wagter. And, from a safe distance, Raymond Lemorne is watching him.

Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu invests Lemorne with just the right amount of awkwardness — his demeanor is generally confident and charismatic, but his facial expressions are often pinched and there is sometimes a bit of tightness around the shoulders and a stuffy, reserved posture that hints at his creepy inner world. (Check out the film’s final shot, in which he musters an glaring intensity to rival the closing images of Psycho and Taxi Driver.) Raven-haired Gene Bervoets is less convincing as the dickish young loverboy of the film’s first act than he is as the smoldering bag of emotional wreckage of its latter half, when he makes a perfect id to Raymond’s ego. Bervoets’ somewhat off-putting screen presence helps Johanna ter Steege steal the show with a bright, naturalistic performance that adds resonance to the tragedy. Georges Sluizer directs it all with classical precision, framing shots in the best way to propel the narrative and showcase performance, never venturing a style that could draw attention to itself. When telling Rex’s story, he stays close to the character, favoring tracking shots that move alongside him and especially Dardennes-style follow shots that that emphasize his subjective experience in relation to the vast, empty and unfriendly environments he faces. Raymond is more likely to be seen from a medium distance, in compositions with a bit of a surveillance quality to them; you feel that the camera is keeping its distance from a dangerous man, and the wider vantage is best for revealing body language as he plans, rehearses and executes his crime.

Still, despite being perhaps the best-known Dutch film export not directed by Paul Verhoeven, The Vanishing is utterly ordinary in appearance. Anything but a stylist, Sluizer is the definition of a cinematic one-hit wonder; the only other film of his to stir up much interest was his own Hollywood remake, which starred Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock and was ridiculed as a disaster. (It gained nothing from a rewritten ending, nor did it benefit from its star power.) But Sluizer was an accomplished documentarian in the 1960s and 1970s, having gotten his start making industrial films for Shell, and it’s his methodical, journalistic approach to novelist Tim Krabbé’s scenario that makes The Vanishing such a compelling investigation. It’s disturbing in part because its lack of affect reflects the emotionless remove of its antagonist. But that banality-of-evil stuff only gets you so far. What’s really distressing about The Vanishing is the film’s climax, with the emotional voyeurism it invites. It induces a genuine, shivery thrill at the prospect of a horrific event imagined three times over — the hero’s appreciation of his predicament is eclipsed only by his horror at his lover’s ordeal, and both of those theoretical atrocities are overshadowed in the mind of the viewer, who is surely imagining how it would feel to actually live through what’s depicted on screen. The spectre expands in the mind as if reflected in a pair of facing mirrors. And there’s something unsavory about simply being a viewer who makes it all the way to the end-credit scroll, having consumed so much abject horror as an evening’s entertainment. (Somewhere, Michael Haneke was taking notes.) The experience shames the viewer as much as it fascinates. And, in that tension, The Vanishing reaches full flower.

Criterion certainly seems a little bashful about the film, releasing it in a handsome but unusually slender new Blu-ray edition. According to the liner notes, this transfer was sourced from a 4K film scan that took place in Italy, with color dialed in by Criterion’s technical mastermind, Lee Kline, in New York. The results are a big step up from the company’s previous DVD release and look to have wrangled every last bit of visible detail from the camera negative. The picture is generally grain-free in brightly lit exteriors, though the grain structure of the film stock is apparent in darker scenes. Shadow detail is good, and colors are richly saturated, even in scenes late in the film where the color palette is deliberately subdued. The picture is mostly (but not entirely) clean of dust, dirt and scratches, which Criterion says were removed using a combination of manual and automatic or semi-automatic tools. The transfer has been generously budgeted at an average video bit rate of just over 35 Mbps, which ensures that any digital artifacts are indiscernible. But the biggest qualitative difference from the earlier version, I think, is the color timing, which now tends toward the warm side of the spectrum during scenes featuring Rex and turns a bit chilly whenever Raymond is on screen. The included uncompressed PCM monaural audio track is similarly exemplary, presenting an exceptionally clean and clear representation of the film’s 35mm magnetic audio track. Criterion reports that imperfections were manually removed during a 24-bit remastering process.

There was plenty of room for picture and sound on the dual-layer disc because extras are sparse by Criterion standards. Still, the 19-minute interview with George Sluizer recorded earlier this year is an especially precious thing since the director died in September, just weeks before this title hit the streets. He discusses adapting the source material, which apparently involved butting heads with novelist Krabbé over Sluizer’s preferred cinematic approach, as well as the casting process, including bringing a difficult Donnadieu to heel. He also remembers speaking at length with Stanley Kubrick, who he says was the film’s biggest fan, and reveals that the English-language title was in part a homage to The Shining. In a new 14-minute interview, ter Steege herself remembers auditioning for The Vanishing as a third-year theater student and describes the challenge of crafting a performance that only gets about 11 minutes of screen time. She also recalls her problems with Donnadieu, who didn’t trust her performance and treated her poorly because of it until Sluizer intervened. (No one else associated with the film is represented here; an interview with Krabbé would have been especially welcome.) An essay by Scott Foundas takes up one half of a four-panel insert, with another take on the jacket art plus three pages of liner notes occupying the opposite side.

The Normal Heart

68/100
Mark Ruffalo in The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart begins in 1981, as a ferry pulls in to Fire Island Pines, the nexus of social life for well-off gay New Yorkers who prize sunshine and sexual freedom. Stepping off that boat is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer from New York who seems simultaneously titillated and disturbed by the buff, barely dressed men who suddenly surround him. Weeks, it turns out, is a notorious buzzkill. He wrote an infamous novel criticizing promiscuity (“All I said was having so much sex makes finding love impossible,” he objects when called on it) and he resists joining the party with his sexually active friends, watching from the sidelines once their dancing gets dirty. Still, he’s human, wandering into the woods in search of more ephemeral, and anonymous, companionship. As he leaves the island, a newspaper headline draws his attention: “Rare Cancer Is Diagnosed in 41 Homosexuals.” And so it begins.

Ned is the alter ego of pioneering AIDS activist Larry Kramer, who chronicled the early days of the crisis in The Normal Heart, an autobiographical off-Broadway play that debuted in 1985 with the force of reportage. Nearly 30 years later, Kramer’s screen adaptation can’t match the urgency of the original production, but it covers the same history: the earliest inklings of tragedy in the gay community as otherwise healthy men grew weak, developed purple lesions on their bodies, and eventually died of what was then a completely mysterious illness. It depicts Kramer’s establishment of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an advocacy group raising funds and awareness of the dire situation, and it shows how a fundamental difference of opinion — Kramer favored the activist tactics of confrontation and agitation, while his closeted comrades insisted on a more low-key approach — got him drummed out of his own organization even as he watched his lover waste away from the disease.

Kramer’s screenplay is a bit problematic in its relentless self-aggrandizement. It elevates his role to that of fearless, blameless truth-telling crusader in the company of cowards. It doesn’t help that Kramer is so preoccupied with the distribution of Important Messages that other characters sometimes feel less like human beings than two-dimensional mouthpieces for the necessary expression of a given point of view. Julia Roberts is cast as the only character who is perhaps more righteous even than Kramer’s alter ego — Dr. Emma Brookner, a polio survivor who rails so convincingly from her wheelchair against incompetence and inaction that she convinces Weeks to become an anti-AIDS spokesman. Interestingly, Kramer gives Brookner the script’s juiciest, most misanthropic line. “If having sex can kill you,” she asks, “doesn’t anyone with half a brain stop fucking?” If you’re Larry Kramer, that’s a key question. Even if it’s true — and it may well be — that Kramer singlehandedly led the struggle to fight the disease against staunch resistance from all corners, it’s hard not to wonder about the reliability of his narrative, or to figure Ruffalo’s performance naturally downplays more abrasive and offensive qualities that may have been genuinely counterproductive. After all, Kramer already had a reputation as a sexual scold in the 1970s. When the AIDS crisis blossomed, it gave him an argument for outright abstinence — but is it surprising that people who knew him well would bristle at that kind of fervor? The Normal Heart sort of shuffles quietly past all that.

Director Ryan Murphy’s expansion of the original play bears the burden of its staginess, despite a hyperactive camera that sometimes makes The Normal Heart feel like an episode of American Horror Story (this guy can make a scene showing a few men shaking hands feel like a goddamned Tilt-a-Whirl ride, and he seriously overvalues ostentatious overhead shots). But the performances are uniformly on point, and that means a lot, especially since pretty much every major character is tasked with a speech. A couple of them are very moving — Joe Mantello damn near steals the whole show when he breaks down weeping in a fit of despair and self-doubt — and that’s because the actors have invested heart and soul in this story. Matt Bomer, playing Weeks’ lover Felix, even went so far as to drop 40 pounds partway through filming, the kind of stunt that isn’t really a necessary component of great acting. As long as Murphy shoots the actors documentary style, letting us just watch their faces, there’s a dreadful gravity there. Despite my misgivings, I admit that it all comes together. If it were only an educational tool for young activists it would have real value, and it actually does quite a bit more than that. Kramer’s screenplay reveals facets of a genuinely important personal experience with real horror, and Murphy’s film captures a suffocating dread at the sudden merging of sex and death at a cruel moment in history — complete with a climactic romantic gesture that finally, heartbreakingly, insists love matters most.

Shot on 35mm film, The Normal Heart gets a lovely Blu-ray transfer with a fine, velvety layer of film grain just visible in most shots. The picture is perhaps a teensy bit soft by contemporary standards, but certainly the BD outclasses cable when it comes to reproducing the film’s lush color palette, which runs the gamut between the straight-up surf-and-sun glow of the early scenes on Fire Island and a cooler, desaturated look in the film’s latter half. A flashback set in a bathhouse is saturated orange and teal; a street scene outside a GMHC fundraiser is lit all in blues and purples just because. They all look terrific. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound mix is most active when the disco music is pumping, but it’s engaged in subtle world-building for the duration, with the surround tracks carrying everything from ambient sound effects in hospital scenes to ringing telephones inside the GMHC offices. Special features are limited to a single HD featurette, “How to Start a War” (9:40) that combines typical EPK contributions from actors Ruffalo, Roberts, Bomer, Mantello, Taylor Kitsch, Alfred Molina and Jim Parsons and screenwriter Kramer, who probably gets the most screen time. That’s right; the director didn’t show up. Much more could have been done, but it’s a fine, pithy effort as far as it goes, aimed at giving casual viewers crucial background info as quickly as possible.

Sleepaway Camp

53/100
Felissa Rose in Sleepaway Camp

Ah, summer camp. Softball games, capture the flag, nightswimming, and life-changing boating accidents. Not to mention killer bees, child molesters, maniacs in the shower, and one kid with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean. Sleepaway Camp is a slasher movie, and it depicts lakeside Camp Arawak as a pressure-cooker of hormones and teenage flop sweat. Into this fetid milieu step Ricky and Angela, teenaged cousins united by tragedy: a boating accident that killed Angela’s parents and sibling some years earlier. Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) might be a little awkward, but he just wants to fit in; Angela (Felissa Rose), meanwhile, seems downright disturbed, spending much of her time dead silent, staring down her fellow campers with a mournful, almost accusatory glare. Before long, some of those campers start dropping dead as surely as the flies that coat the glue strips dangling in Arawak’s kitchen. There’s a soup incident, a shower incident, and an incident involving a toilet stall and angry bees. There’s a bit of business with a curling iron that’s probably inappropriate in a movie starring underage actors. The slasher’s hands appear on screen, but do they belong to unhappy Angela? Overprotective Ricky? Or someone else entirely?

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Breaking the Waves

92/100
Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves can make you queasy from its opening moments, when director Lars von Trier’s name appears with the title superimposed over it, the title card swaying gently on screen as if it were photographed at sea. The effect is less subtle on home video than it is on a big screen, where you’re not as aware of the edges of the frame, but the message is the same: suddenly, you’re adrift, unmoored, alone. Continue reading

Under the Skin

94/100

1920_uts-4

Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is, most of all, a study in imagery. Its science-fiction status is hinted at by visual design, as in the film’s opening moments, when concentric circles appear out of the darkness on screen, then are seen to separate, inhabiting three-dimensional space, from left to right, with a bright light blazing on one side. The figure suggests a diagram of a solar system, all its planets in perfect alignment, or (more on point) the glass elements of a lens.

Out of the previous silence, we start to hear fragments of a woman’s voice on the soundtrack, and the elements on screen, clean and fresh as something out of the Apple factory, are resolved as the workings of an eye, iris and pupil appearing on screen in startling close-up. The film then cuts to images of nature, water rushing by, and a jagged road slicing across the screen like Dali’s razor blade slashing an eyeball.

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Crawlspace

42/100

I’m pretty much on board with a horror movie about a creepy landlord who stalks his college-aged tenants, waging a low-level terror campaign against them by deliberately releasing pests into their living spaces. If he’s a sadist and a serial killer who keeps souvenirs of his victims (by which I mean body parts in jars), that just seems to go with the territory. If he’s also a hardcore Nazi sympathizer with a daddy fixation and a concentration-camp victim locked up in the attic, well, that sounds like it might be a little over the top. But if that creepy landlord-sadist-sociopath-Nazi is played by Klaus Kinski? Now you’re talking.

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Brainstorm

/100

Brainstorm will always have a reputation–among those who are familiar with it at all–as a film maudit. Casual film buffs know it as the sci-fi picture Natalie Wood was shooting when she drowned at the age of 43, under circumstances that remain clouded by mystery. Some of them know that it was one of only two narrative features (Silent Running being the other) directed by special-effects genius Douglas Trumbull, whose work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner is the stuff of legend. Real movie nerds remember that Brainstorm was intended by its director to be one of those landmarks that forever changes the future of film–like The Jazz Singer debuting sync sound, Becky Sharp employing three-strip Technicolor, or The Robe introducing CinemaScope. As a movie partly about the afterlife, it is a weird kind of eulogy to Natalie Wood, yes, but it also memorializes Trumbull’s enduring dream of a new breed of cinema that would make moving images more likelife, and more mind-expanding, than any photographic process that had come before.

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Amour

92/100