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The Vanishing (Spoorloos)

Director - George Sluizer - 1988

"Dirty gem"
In this Dutch horror classic, a man searches frantically and obsessively for his girlfriend after she mysteriously disappears - now on VoD, DVD and Blu-ray

While on a road trip in France, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), stop for a break at a roadside service station. When she goes off to buy a couple of drinks, she vanishes leaving no clues as to her whereabouts. Three years later and Rex, now in a relationship with Simone (Bernadette Le Saché), receives taunting postcards from Saskia’s abductor Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), that draws him into a dangerous game of cat and mouse.

The Vanishing investigates the damaging and infectious nature of obsession. Raymond’s actions are the injury that sparks Rex’s obsessive drive to find out what happened to Saskia. For Raymond, his obsession, having already identified himself as having sociopathic tendencies, is an answer to a question that ironically emerges out of innocence. After his daughter sees him save a girl from drowning and calls him a hero, he feels the impulse to answer the question whether his heroism is genuine? The film echoes an idea, or a warning in Swiss psychoanalyst C.G. Jung’s writing about the conflict of consequences – how a positive action can yield a negative outcome.

It’s a fitting moment to recall the words of the dramatist David Mamet: “The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always, ‘What does the protagonist want?’ That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants.” The drama of Sluizer’s film is primarily driven by what the characters want, and the themes and the ideas emerge from their desires.

The Vanishing is a contemporary parable, a cautionary tale of the dangers of our impulsive desires or emotions, the perils of exploring ourselves and the disruptive and dominating force of the shadow complex. It’s also about the need for closure or resolution on the past, without which the present and future is susceptible to disruption. An entertaining piece of filmmaking, Sluizer does not pander to these themes and ideas, rather he tells a story with a deliberate approach to the thriller genre that still retains an originality.

Cédric Kahn’s 2004 thriller Red Lights, is similarly about a wife who vanishes, and not a girlfriend, that makes it a fitting comparative work. There is however a key difference what follows the disappearance. Kahn chooses to stay with the husband Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) after he leaves the bar and finds his wife missing, while Sluizer after a frantic but futile search, chooses Raymond as the focus of the story. Typically, the suspense hinges on the pursuit, and while there is still a search to find the man behind the taunting postcards, the bared bones adrenaline fuelled effort to discover the fate of the missing woman is absent. Instead, The Vanishing‘s interest is in observing the sociopath – seeing him at home and at work, and watching him hone his method of entrapment. Yet as much as the focus shifts to Raymond, in keeping with Mamet’s assertion, the protagonist re-emerges, because the emotion in the drama lies in Rex’s obsessive quest.

Important to also note is that Raymond’s experiment to test the legitimacy of his heroism recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, that centred on two young men’s attempts to commit the perfect murder. Hitchcock contradicts the protagonist’s desire as an exclusive source of the drama, in a way that The Vanishing still falls back on the plight of the so-called good character. Together Sluizer and Hitchcock through their respective narratives of immoral experiments, confirm and challenge Mamet’s theory.

The second act lacks the suspense common with this type of story, although a tension is present in certain scenes when Rex tries to find Raymond. Sluizer effectively creates tension by allowing us to catch glimpses of Raymond – on a VHS recording of a crowd with his daughter, or in the distance, even positioning the camera behind Rex that creates a tension by showing us how near, yet how far Rex is from finding him. These subtle touches work and elevate the artistry of the film, before it evolves into a game of cat and mouse in the third act.

Donnadieu’s performance neutralises the lack of traditional suspense – Raymond is a compelling subject for our gaze. Watching the abduction routine unfold time and again, a work in progress, Sluizer conveys a genuine terror because nothing is instinctive, it’s methodically plotted and perfected. And the ending should resonate viscerally with a contemporary audience amidst social justice protests and frustrations with narcissistic American and British political administrations. Rex’s fate is a possible metaphor for how many people across the world are feeling.

The Vanishing is available on VoD, DVD and Blu-ray from Monday, June 8th.

"Dirty gem"

By Paul Risker - 11-06-2020

By Paul Risker - 11-06-2020

Paul Risker is an English born scholar, film critic and editor with a postgradua...

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