The Vanishing (1988) Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Thriller as Character Study

The missing person is the greatest motif of the mystery story. Even if the murder story is more common (and perhaps the majority of missing-person stories become murder stories in the fullness of time) the missing-person story contains more questions: not just who did it, but what did they do? What really happened? Is the missing person dead, captured, tortured, or did they even just leave of their own accord? The relationship between the missing and those looking for them can be complicated and fascinating.

In one line of The Vanishing, Rex Hofman, after years of looking for the long-missing Saski, says, “Sometimes I imagine she’s alive. Somewhere far away. She’s very happy. And then, I have to make a choice. Either I let her go on living and never know, or I let her die and find out what happened. So… I let her die.”

Saskia went missing from a gas-station in France, while she and Rex were on their way from Amsterdam to a vacation home. They seem to be in a relatively new relationship – when, at one point, Rex says, “I love you”, it doesn’t seem like Saskia is used to hearing him say it.

This was just after a minor crisis – they ran out of gas in the middle of a dark tunnel. Rex goes off to get gas, and Saskia is terrified of being left in the dark. When he returns with a can, she’s not in the car anymore.

He next sees her in the light at the end of the tunnel, just as he comes out of the dark. They have a little fight, they make up, but Saskia makes Rex promise not to abandon her. Then, in a few hours, she disappears forever.

That she was kidnapped, and by a jaunty-looking little Frenchman Raymond Lemorne, is not left as a mystery in the film’s trailer, and though it might not be obvious on first viewing, our first sight of Lemorne is of him in a parking lot, fitting on a cast and sling to a perfectly unbroken arm.

Part of the structural power of the film is that it has the confidence in its story to shift perspectives – we begin entirely in Rex’s shoes, and then, after Saskia is gone, we’re with Lemorne. Without title cards or explicit dialogue telling us so, the movie has moved back in time, to trace where Lemorne has decided he is going to kidnap a woman.

So much of this story is told through implication – accumulation of details that do not announce themselves, but become clear eventually. Lemorne has a loving family, a wife and two daughters, and at their new country home they engage in a screaming contest to hear the echo in the surrounding hills. Later, Lemorne finds his closest neighbor, and in a roundabout fashion asks him if he could hear the screaming (he could not). He tests chloroform on himself, practices talking to women and getting them into his car. These scenes have the rhythm (and sometimes the music) of comedy, like Lemorne is a nervous teenager trying to figure out how to ask a girl on a date.

Rex Hofman had a girl, and Lemorne took her away. That they meet is an inevitability in this kind of story. What happens next is not. There is very little of the “cat and mouse thriller” aspects. No one chases anyone into an alley, and there’s not a single gun fired or even shown. Besides the initial kidnapping, there is only a single act of violence, and that’s performed by Hofman.

The Vanishing is a thriller as character study, where the motivations of the characters become every bit as important as their actions. Lemorne describes himself as a sociopath, but he’s a remarkably well-adjusted one, who only seems to have gotten the idea for doing something terrible after he rescues a girl from drowning, and his daughter calls him a hero. How can he be said to have done something good, to be a hero if he didn’t have the capacity for doing something terrible?

When Hofman and Lemorne meet, it is three years after Saskia’s disappearance, and Hofman is still obsessed. In one the film’s very few departures from strict realism, when he goes to visit the vacation home he and Saskia were heading for with a new girlfriend, he sees himself driving up the driveway with Saskia. He chases after these phantoms, screaming their name.

Both Lemorne and Hofman, ultimately, are motivated by destructive ideas. Lemorne’s overthinking of his own action leads his to countenance terrible evil. That evil fills Hofman with an obsession to understand it, even at terrible cost (to himself and, as he admits in the dialogue I quoted above, to Saskia if it came to that.)

Remarkably, the film manages to indict both men in the end by reviving Saskia for a scene. It isn’t until the end of the movie that it shows the ultimate kidnapping, but also before that, the dialog between Saskia and Lemorne where he eventually lures her into his car. In that short scene, Saskia (in a performance by Johanna ter Steege) is sweet, funny, ingenuous, very real, and very lovable. She speaks terrible French to Lemorne, and in an adorable touch when she swears in Dutch because she can’t find the right word, her hand quickly covers her mouth, even though the Frenchman wouldn’t understand the curse word. She’s no longer an idea or an object of obsession, but a real human being, a woman.

As a thriller, The Vanishing burns slowly. There’s scary scenes, and menacing aspects without ever moving into the visceral. It creates evocative imagery without ever being flashy (I particularly like the subtle insect motif – the first shot of the film’s first scene is of a stick insect – something hiding in plain site – and the first shot of the last scene contains a praying mantis – a vicious predator.) As a character study, it gets deeply into characters with all the language of cinema – sound and visuals, editing and imagery. As a missing-person story, The Vanishing is kind of perfect. It understands not only the mystery of a person disappearing from all perspectives: the power of the kidnapper, the desperation and obsession of the searcher, and, perhaps uniquely, in the end restores the humanity of the vanished.

The recently released Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection contains two extras new to this edition: video interviews with the director George Sluizer (recently deceased) and the actress Johanna ter Steege. Twenty- and 14-minute long respectively, both are engaging and informative about the production of the film, and in particular the interactions between the actors.

Kent Conrad

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