The Vanishing: The End of the Road

On Film / Essays — Oct 29, 2014

Given that this is a movie with one of the most famous endings in modern cinema, let’s start at the beginning. A man and a woman are traveling through the South of France, near Nimes. They part from the highway to take the scenic route—often a fatal error in movies that open on seemingly happy couples traveling rural countrysides. Then comes the second harbinger of doom: the car runs out of gas halfway through a mountain tunnel, and the man (whose name is Rex) sets off alone in search of gas, despite the pleas of his girlfriend (whose name is Saskia) to wait for her to find a flashlight. Again, our pulse quickens. But no, soon enough Rex and Saskia are on their way again, safe and sound. They kiss and make up. He says he has never felt more in love with her. She forgives him. Then they stop at a gas station for a proper refueling. It is broad daylight, and the place is packed with fellow travelers. And it is only then, when we least expect it, when we may even have forgotten the title of the movie we are watching, that Saskia disappears without a trace.

These are the opening moments of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988), and their uniquely unsettling power derives from how unassumingly they play out. Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) are attractive enough, yes, but not movie-star gorgeous. They bicker in the way of any couple who have ever spent hours cooped up in a car together. And like all such travelers, their minds can’t help but wander into macabre thoughts of vehicular trauma. Moments before their breakdown, Saskia is describing a dream—a kind of premonition—in which she sees herself sealed for all eternity inside a golden egg floating through space, like the Star Child of 2001: A Space Odyssey (a movie whose director, Stanley Kubrick, was among The Vanishing’s professed fans). Then Sluizer films the tunnel itself like a giant sarcophagus entombing the characters, with a blaze of white light burning brightly at the end, as if the dream were already coming true. We have known this couple or been them, and have felt the expansive freedom of the open road but also its acute undercurrents of dread.

The basic setup of a mysteriously disappeared woman has been employed dozens if not hundreds of times in the seventy-six years separating Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes from David Fincher’s Gone Girl, but only occasionally with The Vanishing’s chilly precision. That is partly a tribute to the Dutch novelist Tim Krabbé, who wrote the novella upon which the film is based and who collaborated with Sluizer on the screen adaptation (Sluizer had previously filmed his short story “Red Desert Penitentiary” in 1985). But it has mostly to do with Sluizer’s elegant, sleight-of-hand filmmaking, which splinters the narrative into a series of nonlinear fragments and shrewdly misdirects our attention throughout (shades of another missing-woman movie to come, Christopher Nolan’s 2000 Memento). The present tense in The Vanishing is always shifting and uncertain, and inevitably haunted by the past. And even once its famously shocking ending stands revealed, the movie repays endless repeat viewings, for the sheer folly of trying to figure out how it pulls off its devilish tricks.

One also cannot overstate the contribution of the actor who plays Saskia’s abductor, the ingenious sociopath Raymond Lemorne. Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu (who died in 2010) was an industrious performer who worked tirelessly for the better part of forty years, racking up well over a hundred film and television credits but only occasionally garnering roles worthy of his immense talent. His great moment came in the mid-1980s, when he was cast by Bertrand Tavernier in Beatrice (1987), as a knight of the Middle Ages who spirals into madness and sadism after returning from the battlefield. It was a brutal, startling film, made unforgettable by Donnadieu’s animalistic intensity, his sense of a man at a loss to understand his own descent into savagery. The Vanishing came next, and with it a performance as brilliantly submerged as the one in Beatrice was roiling and operatic.

Like Rex and Saskia themselves, Raymond fails to stand out in a crowd—he’s the sort of psycho who hides in plain sight until the day he ends up on the front page. Clean-cut and mild of manner, an outwardly loving husband and father, he has something in him of the “gentleman” serial killer Ted Bundy, or of the accountant John List, who so successfully dispensed with his entire family that their bodies were not discovered for nearly a month. In The Vanishing, we meet Raymond before he has fully strayed from the path of socially acceptable behavior, but he has already resolved to do so, and he rehearses his fateful actions like . . . well, like an actor preparing a role. And more than any other single thing in Sluizer’s film, it is Raymond’s calm, scientific composure—the way he toys with human lives as a child with a magnifying glass does with ants—that makes the blood run cold.

Ever so gradually, Sluizer tightens the screws, and shows us how these characters came to converge on the plane of chance. Three years pass, during which the logic-minded Rex devotes himself to solving Saskia’s open-ended jigsaw, endlessly reliving that fateful day, searching everywhere for clues. He is like a man trapped in time, unable to move forward until he closes this loop from his past, and Bervoets (who is known mainly as a TV actor in his native Belgium) has the dogged, bleary-eyed, single-minded intensity of a fanatic. In a nod to Antonioni and Blow-Up, Rex carries a Polaroid snapshot that he believes contains, in its blurry reaches, the moment of Saskia’s disappearance. But the style of Sluizer’s film could scarcely be more different: crisp, lucid, and almost clinical where Antonioni is all fashionable moods and abstractions.

Watching from a careful remove, Raymond is struck by Rex’s obsessive perseverance, and maybe at least a little bit by his own desire to make someone privy to the genius of his perfect crime. So he gradually lures Rex in, like the spider courting the fly, and offers him a peek behind the curtain, provided—and these are the words no viewer of The Vanishing can shake loose—he is willing to “share the exact same experience” that Saskia herself had. It is the movie’s most ingenious stroke: a narrative dilemma that is also a richly philosophical one, forcing Rex—and us—to choose between eternal ignorance and knowledge that comes at an undisclosed price.

None of this would work nearly so well if Saskia herself didn’t cast such an intoxicating spell. She is gone by the twenty-minute mark, sooner even than Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane exits from Psycho; like Leigh in that film, Ter Steege remains present by her absence, a vision of trusting, unspoiled innocence swallowed by the void. This was the first film role for the actor, and she was the element in The Vanishing that particularly intrigued Kubrick. He would go on to cast her as the lead in his planned Holocaust drama Aryan Papers, only to abandon the project in the wake of Schindler’s List. Two decades later, the Turner Prize–nominated artists Jane and Louise Wilson made a gallery installation, Unfolding the Aryan Papers, out of material from the Kubrick archive and new interview footage with Ter Steege.

Sluizer is one of those directors whose résumé is so strange and varied it seems inconceivable that it could belong to a single person. He was born in France of mixed Dutch and Norwegian parentage, studied film at the famed Paris film school IDHEC, worked as an assistant director on a range of French, Dutch, and international productions (including Michael Anderson’s gargantuan 1956 Around the World in 80 Days), made documentaries on Siberia and Portugal for National Geographic, and even had a hand in producing Werner Herzog’s famously troubled Fitzcarraldo. He was forty by the time he directed his first feature—in Brazil!—and closing in on sixty when he made The Vanishing, which remains his only film to command major international attention.

Sluizer’s own 1993 English-language remake of The Vanishing (starring Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, and a pre-stardom Sandra Bullock) was a critical and commercial failure. Of his later projects (which include everything from a José Saramago adaptation to a Rob Schneider comedy), the most intriguing is Dark Blood, another tale of a couple who encounter a mysterious stranger after their car breaks down—this time set in New Mexico in the shadow of the Los Alamos nuclear test site. Sluizer had done five weeks of shooting in 1993 when his star, River Phoenix, died of a drug overdose. Seeing no way to complete the film, the insurers pulled the plug. In 2013, in Berlin, Sluizer premiered a hybrid version of Dark Blood cobbled together from the existing footage and the director’s own explanatory voice-over—an obvious labor of love, if not quite evidence of a lost masterpiece.

Still, a director only needs one masterpiece to be a master, and The Vanishing more than fits the bill. It is a film that lingers long after the lights have come up, seeps into your dreams, and remains upon waking. Like a dark, mythic fable, it is deceptively simple in design, complex in its resonances, and timeless in its queasy appeal. It recalls one such fable in particular: Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?” whose nameless hero must intuit which of two doors in a gladiatorial arena leads to death and which to salvation. Only, in Sluizer’s film, there exists a diabolical third possibility: that a single door may lead to both.