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.