1988. Starring Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steeges, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu. Directed by George Sluizer.
What has always been frightening to me has been the unknown. Things that happen in full daylight that can’t easily be explained, someone acting just out of the ordinary, a change slight enough that would surprise you if you weren’t paying attention. That may be why The Vanishing is such a haunting film for me.
The story begins as a Dutch couple is driving through France on their way to a holiday. It’s clear that their relationship is complex — they laugh, tease each other, kiss, argue. Their car runs out of gas in a tunnel. Rex (Gene Bervoets) leaves his girlfriend, Saskia (a supernaturally beautiful Johanna ter Steege), in the car, in the dark. She screams for him to return, but he walks away. When he returns, she has left for the bright light at the end of the tunnel. They reconcile before stopping at a crowded gas station. She goes in to buy drinks for their trip. And disappears.
The panic that Rex feels in that first hour feels real, as he retraces their steps, questions employees, demands that an investigation begin — starting with a fingerprinting of vending machine coins. He is desperate, aware that all roads lead away from the gas station, and his love is down one of them, farther out of reach with each passing minute.
Three years pass, and Rex still searches. Although he has a new girlfriend, he really hasn’t moved on from that day, borrowing money to conduct publicity efforts to find Saskia, collecting wild-goose-chase leads, appearing where and when requested through postcards by a man who claims to have abducted the girl. He admits to his new girlfriend that he can imagine Saskia alive as easily as he can imagine her dead, but he has to know. He has to know what happened to her. Not surprisingly, his obsession causes his new girlfriend to leave him.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Raymond Lemorne, a professor with a lovely family, who lives nearby in Nimes. He has purchased a new country house, and has been practicing his technique at abducting young women. To introduce the villain as early as this film does tells us how much the film has waiting for us. He clumsily attempts to get close to women, mostly those wary enough to not get into his car. He tests his drugging techniques, times his trips to the country house, and tries on a cast and sling to project helplessness.
He has been toying with Rex, and finally confronts him, eager to brag about his crime and promising to tell him everything on their way to France. Rex’s obsession to know what happened to Saskia overwhelms his common sense.
This is one of those films whose ending has been leaked over the years, but it is not diminished by knowing — not that I’m going to spoil it for you. Sluizer directed an American remake in 1993, and the trailer for that film actually showed scenes from the ending, which doomed it, I believe. In fact, you know Saskia’s fate long before you understand Rex’s fate, but you’ll realize throughout the film that fate is not just how we end up, but the path we travel to reach our ending. As Lemorne relates to Rex on their long car drive, he defied fate by doing something dangerous as a teen. He just imagined himself doing it, against the likelihood of not doing it, and in doing so, changed his fate. Rex tries the same thing, leading to the film’s disturbing ending.
What’s frightening about The Vanishing is the average man behind the evil, the normalcy of his family, the daylight abduction, the without-a-trace disappearance of a person so alive a minute ago, the panic, the bargaining, the not knowing.
Then finally, the knowing.