(1988) Directed by George Sluizer; Written by Tim Krabbé and George Sluizer; Based on the novel The Golden Egg, by Tim Krabbé; Starring: Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege and Gwen Eckhaus; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu
“There is an urge in the human being to want to know; so you can want to know, let’s say, on a philosophical level, on an intellectual level, on an emotional level… on the fundamental human level, and I think that’s very important when she disappears… The film plays on those different kinds of wanting to know…” – George Sluizer (from 2014 Criterion interview)
Netherlands Month continues with a look at the Dutch/French co-production The Vanishing, a cerebral, nerve-rending meditation on loss and evil. French director George Sluizer initially collaborated with author Tim Krabbé to adapt his book, but Krabbé was eventually kicked off the project after differences of opinion over the material. The resulting film gradually builds in intensity as we explore the lives of its main characters, reaching a crescendo with a staggering conclusion. Sluizer couldn’t secure a distributor for his bleak film, which eventually debuted at the Sydney Film Festival a year after it was completed.
Rex and Saskia are traveling from Amsterdam through the French countryside when their car runs out of gas. They make an impromptu stop at a gas station/rest area, and Saskia suddenly disappears. Rex’s only clue is from one of the attendants, who claims to have seen her leave with another man. Three years pass with no further evidence as to her whereabouts. Appearances on French television and posting numerous flyers in the vicinity yield nothing, except for a series of postcards from an individual who claims to know what happened to her. The Vanishing is unique among mysteries. Unlike many other films in the genre, the question isn’t who committed the kidnapping and presumed murder (this is established early in the film). Instead we’re left to speculate how it was done, and why.
Johanna ter Steege, in her first film appearance, makes a memorable impression as the mercurial Saskia, playful, but with a hint of sadness. Saskia explores her fear of isolation and abandonment as she discusses a recurring dream, being trapped inside a golden egg, floating in nothingness. While ter Steege’s character only appears on screen for a short amount of time, her memory hangs over the film like a specter, and drives Rex’s motivation to find her.
* According to an interview with ter Steege, she wanted to leave the production after her contentious experience with temperamental co-star Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu. Sluizer intervened to patch things up between the experienced actor and the novice actress.
As he’s introduced in the film, Rex (Gene Bervoets) isn’t a very likeable person. When their car runs out of gas in a narrow tunnel, he abandons his girlfriend. As he walks away, accompanied by her desperate pleas not to leave, there’s a smirk across his face. We see the other side of their ambivalent relationship when he tries to apologize in the following scene, but the damage has already been done. It’s debatable whether they could have possibly lasted together, but any future they planned was lost at the rest stop. Three years later, he’s still obsessing over Saskia’s disappearance, unable to put it behind him. There’s a huge part of his life that ended when she vanished. He agonizes over the occurrence, and can’t bring himself to move on, faced with an inner dilemma he can’t resolve (“Sometimes I imagine she’s alive somewhere far away… Either I go on living and let her live or I let her die and find out what happened.”). His perpetually conflicted state of mind puts a strain on his relationship with his current girlfriend, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), who feels like a fifth wheel, compared to Saskia.
The story shifts back and forth in time as we observe the other key player, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) meticulously practicing his plans, down to the last detail. Everything is calculated, down to his pulse rate and exact measurements of a drug he prepares for the abduction (he works as a chemistry teacher at a local school). In a darkly comic scene he goes through an elaborate pantomime, attempting to get everything just right, and failing miserably. He walks through the entire process: luring his intended victim to his car, opening the door, surreptitiously manipulating the vial of poison, and knocking her out. As portrayed by Donnadieu, Lemorne is a complex portrait of a sociopath, but to label him as evil would be too simple. He has a real life as a teacher and a family man. His wife and younger daughter suspect he has another woman in his life, but they’re only half right. He’s not a charming villain, but an ordinary man with an extraordinary mental defect. He commits a horrible act, not because of some deep-seated compulsion to kill, but as someone acting out a hypothetical conundrum to its logical conclusion. Lemorne exhibits equal capacities for good and terrible deeds, suggesting evil is relative. Is he a monster? To the outside observer or Rex, yes, but certainly not to his wife and daughters, who see him as a somewhat aloof and mischievous, albeit loving husband and father. He’s fascinated by Rex’s tenacity, banking on his insatiable curiosity – not knowing is a powerful motivator.
By the time we reach the devastating, unforgettable ending, we’re left to speculate if monsters are defined simply by their deeds, or their terrible thoughts. There’s a fine line that separates Rex from Lemorne. The protagonist has a cruel streak, while his adversary possesses an equal capacity for decency. The Vanishing suggests it’s only a small defect in our psyche that allows us to take the leap from mere ideation of awful acts to reality. The Vanishing disturbs us on several levels. It illustrates how obsession and curiosity, taken to an extreme, can be to our own detriment, and the world is a very dark, dangerous place. But Sluizer doesn’t let us off the hook so easily,* hinting at some greater truth about society. Perhaps there are bad people and bad deeds out there, but only because it’s something that’s inherent in each of us.
* In a 2014 interview for the Criterion Collection disc, Sluizer remarked, “I don’t mind disturbing the audience, but ‘disturbed’ means that you are obliged to think about what’s right and what’s not right.”