Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Vanishing (1988)

When we recorded our Shouts From the Back Row podcast about remakes this week, I cited the 1993 American version of The Vanishing to be one of the worst remakes of all time. While I won’t focus too much on the remake here, I came to the realization that most of the people I’ve encountered have never even seen the original European version of The Vanishing, so I feel it is my duty to champion it here. Quite simply, this is one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve ever seen and puts 99 % of the Hollywood thrillers out there to shame. This Dutch/French production was directed by George Sluizer in 1988 and was released to great success and acclaim throughout Europe. It was not picked up for North American distribution until 1991, but met with equal success and acclaim on the arthouse circuit. It was perhaps inevitable that Hollywood would immediately decide to greenlight a remake and they even brought over George Sluizer himself to butcher… er, direct the film. The remake’s failure pretty much ensured that Sluizer’s career in Hollywood wouldn’t last long and he eventually went back to Europe, but one cannot deny that his tremendous directorial job in the original version of The Vanishing would probably have made Hitchcock himself get down on his knees and bow.

The film is based on a Dutch novel by Tim Krabbe named “The Golden Egg” and, from what I’ve heard, this is a pretty faithful adaptation. The “golden egg” is referenced in the opening scenes when a young Dutch woman named Saskia (Johanna Ter Stegge) mentions to her boyfriend Rex (Gene Bervoets) that she’s been having recurring dreams about being trapped inside a golden egg that’s floating through space. However, her most recent dream involved her crossing paths with another golden egg that had Rex trapped inside and if the two golden eggs ever collided, her ordeal would be over. This becomes quite an appropriate metaphor for what is about to happen in the film. The opening act of The Vanishing effectively conveys a realistic situation that would be an absolute nightmare for any viewer. Rex and Saskia are in the midst of a road trip through France and pull over at a crowded rest stop to get gas. Saskia walks inside to buy some drinks, but never comes back out. Rex searches everywhere, but cannot find her. He does not know how his girlfriend could just vanish in a public place filled with hundreds of people in broad daylight, but a few eyewitnesses do claim they saw her talking to another man. (In the first of one of the movie’s many surprising touches of black humour, Rex is so preoccupied with finding Saskia that someone else steals his bikes off the roof rack of his car, officially making this the worst day of his life!) Throughout these scenes, a lot of small details are revealed to the viewer that seem insignificant at the time, but turn out to be of great importance later on in the film. After the opening act concludes, The Vanishing makes the surprising decision to move away from Rex and Saskia for awhile and introduce the viewer to the man responsible for her disappearance. He also happens to be one of the most terrifying villains in cinema history. This French poster for the film certainly knew how to make him look as scary as possible.

The film goes into flashback mode and introdruces the viewer to Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a seemingly bland, unremarkable chemistry teacher with a wife and two daughters. In his introductory scene, he and his family are eating dinner at his late mother’s abandoned cottage when Raymond causes one of his daughters to scream by having her open a drawer with a spider inside of it. The next day, he asks a neighbour if he happened to hear any screaming the night before. At first, it’s difficult to figure out the purpose of these scenes until you realize that Raymond is trying to find out if anyone nearby would hear screaming if he brought a victim to the cottage. It becomes pretty obvious that Raymond was the one who kidnapped Saskia and the movie provides a lot of clever scenes that showcase the meticulous planning he puts into kidnapping an innocent victim, like when he starts his stopwatch before inhaling some chloroform in order to find out how long it can render a person unconscious. Raymond seems like a perfect husband and father and there’s seems to be no logical motive for why he would want to kidnap someone, which is what makes his character so terrifying. He simply wants to commit an act of evil just to find out for himself if he’s capable of it. At one point, the movie shows a flashback sequence of Raymond as a teenager when he randomly decided to jump off a balcony and break his arm. His rationale was simply to prove that it wasn’t predestined that he wouldn’t jump. Raymond’s motivation for doing what he does may simply be to prove that his fate is not predestined. Three years eventually pass and Raymond finds out that Rex is still putting up missing posters for Saskia and giving TV interviews in an attempt to find her. Rex’s obsession is so great that it’s impossible for him to hold down another relationship. Raymond eventually decides that he’s willing to approach Rex and finally reveal the truth about what happened to Saskia. But Rex may not like what he’s about to find out…

Anyway, words cannot describe how fascinating this psychological game between Raymond and Rex is. Few movie protagonists have ever been put into a more unenviable position than Rex in the second half of this film. In one scene, he states that if given the choice of letting Saskia live a long life and never finding out what happened to her or letting Saskia die and finding out everything, he would let Saskia die. Rex makes a lot of choices that would seem very questionable and dangerous to the average viewer, but that’s the point. For him, having to live the rest of his life without ever knowing the truth would probably be worse than death. Of course, this story wouldn’t work if Raymond Lemorne wasn’t painted as such an exceptionally manipulative sociopath, but he is such a compelling and brilliantly complex character, and I consider him to be the most underrated screen villain of all time. Bernard-Pierre Donadieu is outstanding in the role and while he’s had a very long and successful acting career in Europe, it’s kind of a shame he’s never crossed over to North America (like Christoph Waltz after Inglourious Basterds) in order to gain more mainstream exposure for his talent. There is not moment in this film where Donadieu overracts and makes Raymond out to be some campy, over-the-top psycho, and the reason his character is so chilling because he just seems so normal and average. Raymond is also frighteningly believable because he’s not built up to be a perfect criminal mastermind and isn’t above making silly mistakes like everyone else. The movie gets a lot of humour out of the flashback scenes where Raymond makes several failed attempts to lure women into his car before his encounter with Saskia, including one hilarious moment where he inadvertently sneezes into the handkerchief he’s just doused with choloroform. The Vanishing eventually leads to one of the most terrifying endings of all time, which needless to say, was not retained for the Hollywood remake. I’d recommend you watch the entire film, but if you want to find out how it ends, here’s a clip.

What’s also creepy about this ending is that even though it’s terrifying and shocking, there’s also a surprising feeling of inevitability to it. I think what makes The Vanishing so effective is that within the context of this story, everything these characters do seems plausible and believable. This thriller makes the unusual structural decision of seemingly telling the audience all the answers from the outset, but leaving out at least one crucial piece of information in order to drive the narrative to its conclusion. The viewer is provided with a lot more details about the abduction than Rex is, but we’re still almost as obsessive as he is about finding out the truth. The film is constructed like a jigsaw puzzle and as it goes along, reveals some of its pieces in places where you wouldn’t even expect to find them. There is a virtually no violence shown at all, but the whole movie leaves a more disturbing impression than most thrillers could ever dream of. I consider The Vanishing to be an absolute masterpiece, but yet it still remains strangely underrated and overlooked by a lot of people today. I think one of the major problems of a bad Hollywood remake is that it can turn people off from wanting to go back and check out the original. But that’s another rant for another time…

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