Note: There are ending spoilers throughout this analysis!
George Sluizer’s methodical thriller The Vanishing is deceptively straightforward. A crime is committed and we know the criminal almost nearly from the start. But to know in advance how it might play out is what gives The Vanishing its ultimate gravitas, as psychological and existential quandaries on destiny and fate come to the fore. While the film’s stakes heighten and the rail line plot becomes clearer, so the inquiry into freedom becomes the hinge, and the film transforms as much into a philosophical allegory as it does a fatalistic mystery thriller.
Two major arcs comprise The Vanishing’s first two-thirds and converge to form the film’s final act. The first arc follows a Dutch couple on a holiday trip in France. Traveling through the French countryside, their car suddenly runs out of gas in a dark tunnel. The girlfriend, Saskia, goes to find a flashlight, and her boyfriend, Rex, in the heat of the argument, leaves her in the tunnel and goes to get gasoline. Right before this incident, Saskia had been sharing her dream of drifting through dark space inside a golden egg. In her dream’s latest rendition, another golden egg, with another person inside, is coming toward her through space, and she believes that when they collide this will be the end of something. Eventually, at a rest stop, she goes to get them some drinks, and never returns, thus ensuing Rex’s incessant search. Several years following the incident, Rex has not healed from her disappearance, and remains in pursuit of what happened to her, floored by postcards sent from the so-called kidnapper, who he wants desperately to meet.
The paralleling arc follows the kidnapper and sociopath Raymond Lemorne who, through trial and error, practices his way of luring people to his car in order to chloroform them, all the way up to the actual capture of Saskia. Revealed throughout the film are his various tactics: timing how long it takes for him to knock himself out with chloroform; recording his pulse in a notebook, ensuring he is cool and calm under pressure; failed attempts to get people to ride in his car. He is exacting to the nth degree. By day, he lives a relatively normal life as a chemistry professor and husband of one wife, who he claims is the only person he’s ever loved, and two daughters who admire him.
…the film transforms as much into a philosophical allegory as it does a fatalistic mystery thriller…
Of course, here the viewer may question the tension. To know everything up front seems to completely vanquish the art of suspense and mystery. But The Vanishing works in a more susceptible way. One major thematic strand appears in the film’s final act when Raymond shows up to meet Rex and offers to take him to France in order to discover what happened to Saskia. On the way to France, Raymond exposes the genesis and workings of his philosophy. One of his central ideas, the backbone of his actions, comes from when he was sixteen and convinced himself to jump off a railing from a second-story window. In order to force himself to do it, he says, he had to posit the question: is it predestined that he won’t jump, and if that’s the case then he had to go against predestination, go against what was fated for him, and jump. Of course, this logic is translated into his idea of capturing someone. But it is also the heart of the film’s narrative construction, which tells a very obvious story, revealing both sides, and then delivers a logical conclusion, all the while manipulating the viewer’s own perspective and hopes on what is happening.
Hard not to see everyone’s part played to a perfection of destiny. Grooves are set out for them from the start, much in similar fashion to the Tour de France competition often heard on a radio in the film’s background: this image of set paths of cyclists racing toward an endpoint. Saskia is fixed to that of being victim, whose self-fulfilling prophetic dream of two golden eggs are, of course, akin to the coffins Rex and her are buried alive in by film’s end. Rex is an obsessed lover starving for answers, deeply stuck in ruts of guilt and shame over his unfulfilled promise to never leave Saskia again, as he did near the film’s beginning. Raymond is a self-aware sociopath, his own self-awareness of psychological science being a jab at its fatalistic identifiers. He has created for himself a unique mathematical precision to his kidnapping and expectations of how Rex will act. Bleakness resonates as fatalism sets in, watching them go down what they convince themselves as freedom but turns out its opposite. And yet, we are always on edge that something will change, that it can’t end without there being a tremendous altering of circumstances.
The characters are driven by Raymond’s concept: convincing one’s self against what will probably not happen, and having the blind hope that it will. Rex is convinced he will never find Saskia, even if his act of searching is now only a tribute to his missing love. And by that convincing that he will never find, he ultimately holds onto the hope that he will. Raymond must prove to himself that he is not as good a man as his daughters say about him, and so he commits a terrible act. But by that terrible act he circumvents his fate to be a good man, which ultimately makes him master of good and evil, able to be both when he wants to be, neutralizing the morality completely.
…everyone’s part played to a perfection of destiny…
And for us, realizing her end is as simple as it was offers a disturbing portrait of ourselves. The film comes into full focus, as being a trick against the viewer. All the anticipation of searching for Saskia ends with Rex realizing her fate was simply to be buried alive. In a world of slashers and societal obsessions with serial killers, the hundreds of B-movie torture fests, it almost seems anti-climactic that her fate was so easy. And yet that is where the film becomes its most frightening. The viewer takes on Raymond’s form of thinking: the film’s entirety is waiting in a kind of suspension that she may still be alive, and yet expecting that she won’t be, in order that she ultimately will, and to come to the end and seeing his logic didn’t work for us, but that we have also wholly related to it.
Her fate being so straightforward, the film becomes just what it always portrayed itself as: a fatalistic clockwork exposition, in the vein of neorealism, of a disappearance. Saskia’s disappearance is just another way to disappear, bolstered by Raymond’s actions that feel underwhelming, relatable, even ironically bland-seeming for a film’s portrayal of a criminal mastermind. Further his status as a family man, with two loving daughters, and his professorship, humanize him and lull the viewer into feeling a sense of normalcy toward his acts. This is just one more hobby and passion of his, and likewise could be ours as well.
What makes her disappearance more rote is that the modern world is positioned as one in which Raymond’s acts are part of the order of it, equal to the force of a car crash or a drowning or cancer. Raymond even references as such when he meets Saskia the first time, the coincidental destiny in how Saskia drew out their conversation, tempting her own fate, almost knowing she had to talk to him in order to seal it. And yet Raymond is ironically doggedly fighting for his free will despite what shapes it, Saskia handed to him by the universe and him doing its bidding. He must improvise on the spot in order to convince her to return to his car, and the unexpected, the luck needed to carry out his plan, is part and parcel. Fate and freewill are inextricably linked, and the film, despite its own constructed fatalism, still allows room for the murkiness and complexity of choice despite the set outcome. The film’s final act, especially, relishes often in dealing with the manner of mental games pursued in managing fate and choice: the labyrinthine logical steps, the maze of playfulness, and the compartmentalization that can allow us at once to convince ourselves free in making our choices and yet also bound to that outside of us, shaping us, keeping us trapped inside our lives.
…a fatalistic clockwork exposition, in the vein of neorealism, of a disappearance…
Her vanishing takes on another layer, however, as the act itself is never shown, and she is never seen again except in flashback. It feels almost as if it never happened, despite Raymond’s stories of how it did. Never seeing the action lends itself to disbelieving that Raymond has done what he has practiced so hard to do, as if we anticipate somewhere there is a trick or he is simply a liar, despite the film’s showcase of evidence against him. Such insidiousness, such preemptive disbelief, makes the film’s almost simple conclusion even more shocking, when we are shown dark claustrophobic shots of Rex trapped in a wooden coffin, the muffles of dirt hitting the wooden lid above him. Such ends Rex’s hope, and is the finality of his madness, as he laughs, lighting over and over again the lighter that Saskia once gave him, to witness here his definite fate, his all-consumptive monomania for her come finally to the finest and precisest of points. Submerged in the darkness of space, he now understands what it is like to disappear, to be absolutely nothing. He lives on the other side of life, even if not quite dead yet, with his final hours and days knowing where he is going and what will happen. And ironically, too. For it was free choice dabbling with fate, taking his blind chance of following Raymond’s deal to drug him in order to reveal Saskia’s story.
Despite The Vanishing’s criminal and psychological methodology, which in some senses washes out the depths of emotion present, by film’s end a mournful aftertaste leaves us to realize the severe reality. A sad revelation, more than anything, that Saskia’s and Rex’s lives were ultimately to live for Raymond’s own mental games, as if they were players, since birth, for Raymond’s directorial view of the world that he desired to come to fruition. The film brings about an urgency: what are the guiding forces in our lives, and how is it that they shape us? How will our lives transpire when our future is an uncontrollable arrangement of lines and factions, within and without, threading toward a terminal point? And would you want to know that point, regardless? Despite our own disbelief at The Vanishing’s narrative, it is telling us truly what is happening and by who. And that is its most terrifying prospect.
Director: George Sluizer
Release Year: 1988
Runtime: 107 minutes