Friday, May 28, 2010

Review: Spoorloos [The Vanishing] (George Sluizer, 1988)

Spoorloos [The Vanishing] is a superb 1988 Dutch thriller from director George Sluizer, adapted from the novella The Golden Egg by Tim Krabbe. It is a brilliantly intricate study of the human condition, and it features one of the most horrifying endings ever filmed. The Vanishing tells the story of a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, who are on holidays in France. After running low on gas and stopping at a busy rest stop in rural France, Saskia disappears from the area without a trace. Unable to cope with the loss, Rex (Gene Bervoets) continues his quest for the truth of her disappearance with an obsessive self-funded hunt for her abductor, which spans three years. He begins receiving intermittent postcards from the abductor, which arrange potential meets between the two, and the truth behind her disappearance. Rex does not know the identity of the abductor and follows his leads, but to no avail. Frustrated, and obsessed, he makes his quest public, eventually forcing the man to approach Rex and reveal his identity. What is so brilliant about this film is that the villain is introduced early, and allowed to be fully developed, rather than everything being revealed at the end, and the motives behind the crime never fully explained. The man in question is Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), an educated, middle class chemistry teacher and family man. We see a series of flashbacks of him and his family. He is faithful to his wife, and adored by his children, but individually he is sociopath that carefully orchestrates his plan to kidnap a woman, purely to see if he was capable of such an act.
From the moment Saskia disappears, the film has a level of suspense present to every image. Even the early abduction sequence is prolonged, and while we know she inevitably disappears, it still comes as a shock to the audience, as much as it does to Rex. For such a simple crime, it seemed impossible to pull off in such a crowded, public place, but it remained undetected for so long, and ultimately destroyed Rex' life. We only see the sequence from Rex' point-of-view, as he stands by his car, takes some photos and waits for her to return with the drinks. Even as Rex becomes agitated, we do too. The full truth, revealed later by Raymond, confirms the witness accounts collected by Rex initially. These revealed that Saskia had been in to purchase a frizbee and was seen talking to a man by the coffee machine. He also spots the squashed soda cans in the parking lot, and possesses a blurred photograph which actually captures Saskia with another man. There were traces of her disappearance, but of course nothing could be proven. This 'unknown' is what has plagued Rex for the ensuing three years. It is when he receives the anonymous post cards promising the truth about her disappearance, answers to his public questions, and the identity of his abductor, that he becomes motivated once again.
It is a brilliant decision to reveal Raymond so early in the film and it remains more concerned with both man's obsessions, than hiding the identity of the abductor. Once the men meet and Raymond agrees to drive Rex into France and unravel the story for him, there are a series of flashbacks that accompany Raymond's explanation. We see him reveal that he had saved a young girl from drowning in a river, and was called a hero by his daughter. He recounts that he believed this was true only if he was proven incapable of committing an act of pure evil. Raymond's calm demeanor is disturbing, keeping in mind that this man is both a respected educator and family man, and a sadistic abductor and murderer for the benefit of a social experiment and personal 'achievement.' His careful planning and subsequent attempts resulted in failure, as he approached women adorned with a fake cast and sling and asked them for assistance to lift a trailer and connect it to his car. When he meets Saskia his friendly banter and assistance with her struggling French diminishes his appearance as a threat. Both hers and ultimately Rex' trust in Raymond results in horrific consequences.

The Vanishing is timed perfectly, intentionally prolonging exchanges of dialogue, and ensuring that, as a viewer, you pay attention to everything. It is handled with Hitchock precision, slowly growing in intensity, and hiding the full truth behind the mystery until the final moments. The film has a engrossing sense of realism, as the camera often observes the characters from a distance, emphasizing every mannerism, or documents their emotions (or lack of) and their interesting facial features through a series of close-ups. The performances are also great, especially the two leads. The screenplay is gripping and while I am not familiar with the novel, all reports are that it is a faithful adaptation, making some minor but insignificant alterations.

*Warning: spoilers to follow*

The final image of the newspaper report has the pair side by side and surrounded by ovals (signifying the golden eggs in their shared dream). The two were connected with a bond which meant that Rex could not let go. The fact that they shared the exact same dream, as was recounted to Rex by Saskia, could have been a sign as Rex interpreted it, or it could have been a signifier of their shared fates. Typical of the idea presented by Raymond when he was recounting his thoughts about the abduction, nothing is predetermined. Each of the characters is faced with a choice; Saskia to enter Raymond's car, Raymond to go through with his plan, and Rex to go with Raymond later and follow his instructions. None of their fates were predetermined, but as a result of circumstance and choice.
The conclusion is totally shocking, and while many of you may guess the fate of Rex before the conclusion, it is no less powerful. The final shot of Raymond, absent of any emotion as a result of a pair of heartless acts, is hair raising. He watches his wife watering the garden where he has buried his victims, and the camera pans to an open newspaper with the printed story of the recent disappearance of Rex Hofman. As accurately described by a friend of mine, it is one of the greatest endings to a film in cinema history. I loved The Vanishing. Raymond Lemorne is one of the coldest villains you will witness. I was captivated throughout, and it makes bold decisions that stretched the boundaries of the suspense thriller genre. Recommended!

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

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