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Vanishing, The

Review by: 
Red Velvet Kitchen
AKA: 
Spoorloos
Release Date: 
1988
Studio: 
Criterion
Genre: 
Thriller
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
1 NTSC
Aspect Ratio: 
1.66:1
Directed by: 
George Sluizer
Cast: 
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu
Gene Bervoets
Johanna ter Steege
Movie: 
5
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
5
Video: 
Click to Play

One of the most talked about endings in recent cinema is pivotal to how one appreciates the chilling atmosphere and ordinary, everyday menace that runs throughout this impressive film. However, I beg to differ from all those who merrily compare the unpleasantries of this denouement to that of Seven, Planet of The Apes, or Weekend. I believe in this alternative notion so strongly that I've had to separate my review into two sections, the first for those uninitiated with this film, and the second as a deeper probe for those who know.
 
No gore and no errant clothing to speak of. Yet this is still one of the most revered and idolised horrors of modern ages. Lacking the self-conscious irony of the Scream generation, bypassing any notion of comedy intertwined with the darkness and refusing to portray anything more grisly than heartbreak, desperation and banal, almost curious evil. The film manages to hold its own and truly disturb thanks to the awesome undercurrent of impurity, loss and pure nastiness that lurks beyond the lost highways and vast architectural expanses this film uses to debilitating effect. On the surface this is the stuff of melodrama with a kink of existential angst, and a shock climax. Beneath that facade of convention lies a troubling exploration of perpetual woe, with the light at the end of the tunnel buried under false hopes of contentment and absolution.
 
A young couple, Saskia (Johanna Der Steege) and Rex (Gene Bervoets) are on a summer vacation in France driving through the picturesque scenery in the benevolent summer sun. The affectionate lovers playfully argue, and quickly Saskia tells Rex of a recurring dream that's clearly pre-occupied her. She is enclosed in a travelling, golden egg in the midst of darkness with no hope of escape. Recently, a second egg has accompanied her journey. Shortly afterwards their car breaks down in the middle of a dark tunnel, and arguing over the predicament Saskia suddenly feels full of abandonment and insecurity, something Rex doesn't help as he storms off in search of some fuel, leaving her alone in the car. When he returns they swiftly make-up and stop at a nearby service station. Rex waits for her outside, but after a long wait he becomes increasingly anxious. She never returns, and three years down the line Rex is still searching in vain, despite being contacted by a man who claims to know what happened; the kidnapper who is not who he seems (Bernard Pierre Donnadieu). Gradually the two men grow closer and slowly the fate of Saskia is revealed to all.
 
Often films are consumed by an overriding feeling or sensation, particularly those of the peripheral horror genre. Don't Look Now has an immense, prophetic sense of doom and dread that weaves its way through the twin labyrinths of Venice and Donald Sutherland's mind. Suspiria contains a kinetic thrill for violence and the fantastical, one which is alternatively exciting and unpleasant, like a child burning ants with a magnifying glass. The Vanishing maintains an overwhelming sense of loss with little chance of redemption, so much so that the opening sequences of the optimistic and content couple are tinged with the kind of sadness that old photo albums possess. A melancholy variation of nostalgia. The three central performances aid this considerably, with each injecting a genuine sense of humanity and integrity to their dead-end characters, even Der Steege who haunts the film long after her early disappearance. And Sluzier has a keen eye for his performers, as the film is at once intrusive (as it should be), intimate but never voyeuristic. With these people, ordinary enough to attain the everyman status that alleviates their plight to something more universal, Sluzier creates a film which knows that whilst a brutal murder may be spectacularly bloody, horror as told effectively through troubled souls will always cut deeper. If I felt like coining phrases, I could say the tear is mightier than the spear, but that would just be too humourous and flippant for a film as expertly constructed and straight-faced as The Vanishing.
 
Of course, Sluzier almost blew it with an overblown and unfocused remake (a little like Nic Roeg remaking Don't Look Now with an ending in which Sutherland confronting the red-hooded stranger discovers it really is his daughter, before Julie Christie runs on and announces she's pregnant, resulting in a freeze-frame embrace ending straight out of a movie made in 1986) coupled with his subsequent fall from grace, but The Vanishing can always be held up as one of the best horrors of the late eighties, early nineties, and conclusive proof of the power of suggestion.
 
AND NOW THE SPOILERS BEGIN
 
Of course all of you know what's coming, and for those who have strayed into this exclusive area to ruin the movie for themselves, shame on you. My argument: The ending of The Vanishing is the happiest possible outcome for such a film, and such a world. But, you found out they were both buried alive at the end? Yes, but for a number of reasons, this is as perfect as Rex and Saskia are ever going to get. Firstly, the film appears to present a world stumbling around with little rhyme or reason, lost somewhere along the way, forgetting like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty pretty much the essentials of life, compassion and joie de vivre in general. Sluzier creates a world waiting to wake up (hence the coffee symbolism I propose), a place where human experience and endeavour (curiousity, depravity etc) provides the only avenue to truly feel alive or relevant. The sense that The Vanishing is a pseudo-road movie only enhances the matrix of convoluted motorways and emotions. From this unforgiving, almost comatose perspective, the golden egg scenario is as close to a union as the young lovers are ever going to get. The closing shot of the two framed in oval portraits only seems to confirm this skewered reunion. Essentially, in a world this ugly this is as good as it gets.
 
The Vanishing is a place where happy endings don't exist for anyone (both figuratively and literally, the conventional happy ending and the tying up of loose ends). So, as horrific as the ending may be, at least the final image has Saskia and Rex both smiling. We could, of course have had decomposing, asphyxiated corpses or the further inanity of Donnadieu's life, but we don't.

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