DVD Review: The Vanishing (1988) - The Criterion Collection

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Director George Sluizer directed both filmed adaptations of Tim Krabbe’s novel The Golden Egg. Titled Spoorloos in its native Dutch, The Criterion Collection has recently reissued the 1988 original. Criterion’s timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous as Sluizer sadly passed away in September, 2014 at age 82. Earlier in the year, Criterion interviewed him for a 19-minute featurette that appears on the new DVD. Understandably his recollections are focused exclusively on the ’88 version, though it certainly would’ve been fascinating to hear about his motivations to remake the film in the U.S. five years later. That version, starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland, offers a rare opportunity to compare the same material taken in two different directions by the same director.

Far and away the superior of the two is the starkly haunting 1988 Dutch/French-produced original. A happy young couple, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), are enjoying some leisure time in France. Rex is clearly a bit self-absorbed and too immature perhaps for a serious, committed relationship. Saskia may, in fact, be more than he deserves. At a pit stop for gas and provisions, Saskia hits the ladies room and never returns. A frantic Rex searches, to no avail. Soon we’re introduced to the perpetrator of the abduction, Raymond (Bernard-Peirre Donnadieu). That’s no spoiler, as Sluizer and co-screenwriter Krabbe aren’t interested in creating a typical mystery. They tell us straight up that Raymond is a sociopath, despite maintaining an apparently happy (if slightly off-kilter) family life with his wife and two daughters. He abducted Saskia at random simply to fulfill an exercise in coldhearted wrongdoing.

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Not a fun movie by any means, Sluizer mines a very rich vein of obsession and paranoia as he charts Rex’s years-long search for Saskia. Rex cannot move on and it’s ruining all other aspects of his life. If he was admittedly a bit callow when we first met him, he becomes downright unlikeable as we see him consumed with his desire to know the truth. His single-minded pursuit emerges as another offshoot of his self-centeredness. Does he really care what Saskia may or may not have endured? It feels more like he simply can’t accept that he let someone get the upper hand. We don’t sense that his and Saskia’s relationship was founded on any particularly great depth of feeling. They were young and carefree. What Rex is so miserable about is not what he actually lost, but rather that he was cheated out of a potentially fulfilling future.

The late Donnadieu is chilling as Raymond, the unfeeling kidnapper. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of his portrayal is that in some strange way he seems more cordial and approachable than the nominal hero Rex. Raymond’s family appears to love him and quite honestly he isn’t devoid of personal charm. The Vanishing lodges itself under the viewer’s skin by virtue of its very plausibility. Unlike the overheated approach Sluizer took with his Hollywood remake, this film is scary for the matter-of-fact way it presents the tragedy of abduction and its long-lasting impacts. Sluizer’s non-linear narrative ingeniously elaborates on Raymond’s method for committing an untraceable crime. The unconventional storytelling ensures that The Vanishing, regardless of how deliberately paced and plotted, never bores.

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For the rather compact supplements package, Criterion includes the aforementioned interview with Sluizer, who lucidly conveys the history of the entire project. Also exclusive to this new Criterion edition is a 15-minute interview, also conducted earlier in 2014, with actress Johanna ter Steege. She points out that, startlingly, her character Saskia is onscreen for only 11 minutes. Nonetheless, she left such a strong impression that her presence hangs over the entire film. Film critic Scott Foundas contributes the essay found in the booklet.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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