What makes George Sluizer's The Vanishing absolutely brilliant is the way it builds an unrelenting amount of suspense, and at the same time gives the audience all the information we need to know. The Vanishing opens as a Dutch couple drive down the expressway for a cycling holiday in France. After the vehicle runs out of diesel within an express tunnel, the two get in a domestic quarrel and the husband angrily strands his wife near the vehicle, when going off and getting gasoline. When returning back to the car, the husband's wife is furious that he stranded her there, but ultimately he apologizes and she forgives him when arriving on a roadside gas station for gas and refreshments. They throw a Frisbee around, and bury a couple of coins to mark the spot forever. Then the wife has the husband put up his hand and swear he will never abandon her again. When the wife goes back to the station to buy beer and soft drinks, she inexplicably never returns. She disappears. At first the husband cannot believe what has happened, and he leaves a note on their car and goes searching for her. He asks anyone if they had seen her, and he can even see a bright dot of her red hair in an idle Polaroid he snapped while waiting for her at the car. Where did she go? The authorities believe his wife probably decided to leave him, and even we the audience know of the domestic quarrel they recently had earlier establishing how impulsive the wife is, making it credible that she might as well just up and left the husband at any given moment. Her disappearance becomes an unhealthy obsession with the husband, and after three long years he simply needs to know what has happened to her, dead or alive.
A Dutch couple, Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia Wagter (Johanna ter Steege), are on holiday in France. While driving, Saskia and Rex are playing a road spelling game. Saskia keeps looking at the gas meter and Rex reassures her to not bother with it. "My nightmare. I had it again last night," Saskia said. Rex says, "That you're inside a golden egg and you can't get out, and you float all alone through space forever." Saskia says, "Yes, the loneliness is unbearable. No. This time there was another egg flying through space. And if we were to collide, it'd all be over."
Suddenly the couple's car runs out of petrol and the car dies in the middle of a dark tunnel which is extremely dangerous. The couple get in a huge argument and Rex decides to abandon her in the tunnel as he walks to retrieve some fuel. When returning back to the tunnel his wife isn't nowhere to be found. When refueling the car he drives through the tunnel and sees Saskia waiting for him at the end of the tunnel.
They don't speak to another during the drive, with her being angry for stranding her. The couple drive to a petrol station to refuel and rest, as you hear in the background a radio commentary on the Tour de France. A man, later identified as Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), covertly observes them as he puts on a fake cast. Rex apologizes to Saskia for abandoning her in the tunnel saying, "In the tunnel when you called for me, I felt I loved you more than ever." Saskia ultimately forgives him and the two promise to have a good holiday.
Saskia goes into the gas station to use the rest room and returns with a frisbee. After the romantic burying of two coins at the base of a tree, Saskia has Rex to swear on two things: One, that she can drive the rest of the way to Bois Vieux. The second is that Rex will never abandon her again. Saskia heads back into the gas station to buy something to drink while Rex waits out for her at the vehicle. When she doesn't come out Rex decides to head into the gas station to look for her. After a thorough search inside and outside the station Rex starts to get worried, as he writes a sign that reads: "Saskia, I'm looking for you. Wait in the Car," and places it on the windshield of the car while returning back inside the gas station to do another search.
He starts panicking and calls out her name searching both restrooms and asking the main cashier. She tells Rex that she seen her about a half an hour ago by the coffee machine asking for change. Rex starts asking customers if they seen Saskia showing a picture of her, and customers describe they saw her leaving with another man. Rex can even see, in the background, the bright dot of her red hair in an idle Polaroid he snapped while waiting for her. They're crushed soda cans are in the parking lot, and when he reports her missing, investigators believe its only a domestic quarrel since she's only been missing for a few hours.
A series of flashbacks introduces Raymond. A respectable man with a wife and two daughters, Raymond has secretly been plotting the abduction of a woman. He buys an isolated country house in the middle of the country, and brings his family there to show them the country house he purchased. During dinner one of his children screams when seeing a spider. Raymond asks his children how loud they think they can scream, purposely having them scream as loud as they can. Later on that evening Raymond asks a neighbor if he heard any screams coming from his place. His neighbor says he didn't, which confirms the privacy of the home.
Raymond's initial attempts at an actual abduction are not successful, involving a hitchhiker that he originally believed was hitchhiking alone. While at the privacy of his cottage Raymond experiments the use with chloroform, knocking himself out but not before setting off a timer, to show how long the chloroform's effect will last on a victim. He brings in a large mattress for his victims, and eventually scripts and rehearses himself inviting his victims into his vehicle for a ride, and eventually knocking them out with chloroform. (He even practices on one of his daughters unsuspectingly when picking her up at school.) His wife and daughters have the suspicion that Raymond is having numerous affairs with the purchase of the country house and of the mileage of miles that has been used on the car.
Raymond reassure his wife that the purchase of the country house has become a passion saying, "Because it's perfect, it has become a passion. You start with an idea in your head. And you take a step, then a second...Soon, you realize you're up to your neck in something intense, but that doesn't matter. You keep at it for the sheer pleasure of it. For the pure satisfaction it might bring you. And that, my dear...that can't be measured in miles." After another failed attempt at an abduction, Raymond realizes he must go to Prisunic where they're more foreigners, after initially trying to abduct someone who knew one of his daughters. He eventually decides to pose as an injured motorist in need of assistance as a strategy to lure women into his car.
Three years after Saskia's disappearance, Rex is still searching for her. Rex 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." His new girlfriend Lieneke reluctantly helps him search for Saskia, but becomes is increasingly dissatisfied with this relationship saying to Rex, "I don't feel like being part of a ménage à trois." Over that time Rex has received a postcard five times, directing him to meet the kidnapper at a café in Nimes. Each time, the kidnapper refused to show (and in one instance Raymond is seen watching him up from his apartment balcony). Unknown to Rex, the café is directly across the square from Raymond's apartment. "Know what I'm afraid of," Rex tells Lieneke. "That he'll stop sending postcards. What if he's dead. Then I'll never know."
Lieneke believes the man sending Rex the postcards is a lunatic and only toying with Rex's obsession driving Rex to near madness. Rex then appears on television, stating that he only wishes to know the truth about what happened to Saskia. Raymond is watching him on television with his children as he hears Rex state: "I hope this gentlemen is listening. There's something I want to tell him. I want to meet you. I want to know what happened to my friend. To know that, I'm prepared to do anything. I don't hate you. I don't hate anything. But I need to know." The interviewer asks Rex if he has any idea what kind of person he could be and Rex says: "I think...no, I'm sure...he's very intelligent, can go unnoticed, and is a total perfectionist." Rex states that he had a dream similar to Saskia's that he was trapped in a golden egg, and that in the dream they found each other in space, interpreting the dream as a sign.
Shortly after, Lieneke, unable to take his obsession with Saskia, sadly leaves Rex. "I hope you'll eventually learn something," she tells him. When Rex makes his way out to his car Raymond finally confronts him saying, "Mr Hofman. I'm the man you're looking for. Cafe des Beaux Arts, in Nimes." Rex asks if Saskia is dead and Raymond says, "Come with me to France and you'll know everything. I offer you this unique chance."
Rex furiously punches and kicks Raymond until he is out of breath. Raymond gets up and assures himself saying, "Finished? I'm warning you, I've taken precautions. If anything happens to me, if you speak to anyone, my offer's no longer valid. And you won't know a thing! I'm going back to France with or without you. I'm off in 5 minutes." Rex agrees and gets in Raymond's car saying, "All this time I was afraid you might be dead." As they drive Raymond explains that he has prepared everything for their trip. "True, I don't like the idea that you know my name," Raymond says. "I have to limit my risks. I've thought a lot about our meeting, Mr. Hofman. Since the beginning, I felt the need to see you. What you said on television persuaded me. I gathered the courage you spoke of. You can kill me. I acknowledge your right to do so. I'll take the risk. But I'm banking on your curiosity."
"When I was 16, I discovered something." As they drive, Raymond describes himself when he was a young boy jumping from a two-story balcony. "Everyone has those thoughts, but no one ever jumps. I told myself: 'Imagine you're jumping. Is it predestined that I won't jump? How can it be predestined that I won't? So, to go against what is predestined, one must jump. I jumped. The fall was a holy event. I broke my left arm and lost 2 fingers. Why did I jump? A slight abnormality in my personality, imperceptible to those around me. You can find me listed in the medical encyclopedias under 'Sociopath' in the new editions. It was 26 years before a new experience came to mind." Raymond continues telling Rex the story of him jumping in to rescue a young girl from drowning and was herald as a hero by his family. "My daughter was bursting with pride. But I thought that her admiration wasn't worth anything unless I could prove myself absolutely incapable of doing anything evil. And as black cannot exist without white. I logically conceived the most horrible deed that I could envision right at that moment. But I want you to know, for me killing is not the worst thing."
Rex asks if they can stretch their legs for a bit, and so Raymond pulls over near a park. When Raymond talks about different languages it flashes back to Raymond practicing how to speak Dutch, English, and various other different languages. After more failed attempts, Raymond's methods of getting women into his car continued to fail. "Prostitutes, yes. But they don't interest me. They're more obvious victims. And nobody cares." On one of his birthdays Raymond is given a unique looking ken chain for all the mileages he puts on the vehicle. When his family go through a picture album Raymond stops to admire the photo of his younger self when he broke his arm. The cast on his arm gives him the idea of wearing a cast and pretending to have a broken arm.
Raymond describes how he kidnapped Saskia from the rest stop by complete random luck. After another failed attempt at abducting a woman (he accidentally sneezes from the chloroform) he decides to get coffee inside the gas station. Only because of fate Saskia enters the gas station and he catches her attention because of his unique key chain (It has the Letter R which is the letter as Rex's). She asks about his key chain which gives Raymond the opportunity to pose as a traveling salesman and enticing Saskia to get into his car (she first looks in and sees photos of Raymond and his family) to retreive the item as a gift for Rex. After Saskia is inside Raymond uses the chloroform on a handkerchief and knocks Saskia out, quickly driving off and crushing the sodas she bought which were dropped on the pavement "Destiny Mr. Hofman. If I haven't sneezed," Raymond tells Rex. "Even the best laid plans can be..."
After a slight interruption from an officer for not wearing his seat belt, Raymond takes Rex to the original rest stop where he abducted Saskia. He then pours Rex a cup of sedated coffee, and offers Rex the opportunity for him to experience the same thing Saskia did. "If she's dead, I'm also going to die," Rex asks. Raymond says that is the only way to know the truth that Rex has been seeking.
As Raymond waits in the car, Rex rages for several minutes, unsure of what to do. After digging up the coins he and Saskia had buried, he frantically drinks the coffee and accepts his fate. "I told myself: 'Imagine you're drinking.' Where it is predestined I won't drink? So, to go against what is predestined, I must drink. I drank it for her!"
When Rex awakens, he discovers that he has been buried alive. Above ground, Raymond relaxes at his country home while a newspaper headline displays the strange coincidence of Rex's disappearance, showing pictures of both he and Saskia side-by-side, each encased in an oval shape resembling an egg.
The Vanishing was co-written by director, George Sluizer, and Tim Krabbé, the author of the original novel, The Golden Egg. The film accurately portrays the narrative within the novel, apart from two factors: firstly, the film's narrative is more complicated than the novel. Extensive use of flashbacks and gradually revealed personality traits of the central characters lend depth to the film; the second major difference involves the direct interaction between the characters Rex Hofman and Raymond Lemorne, who spend more time together following their meeting.
Johanna ter Steege (shown here in 2008) won a European Film Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Vanishing. The Vanishing was released in the Netherlands on October 27, 1988. It was released to acclaim and the producers George Sluizer and Anne Lordon received the Golden Calf for the Best Full Length-feature film at the Netherlands Film Festival in 1988. The Vanishing was the Dutch submission for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988. The film was disqualified because the Academy determined that there was too much French dialog in the film to meet the requirements. AMPAS deemed that the film was unsuitable to represent the Netherlands. The Dutch declined to send another film, leaving them unrepresented for the first time since 1972. The film was released in France on December 20, 1989 under the title L'Homme Qui Voulait Savoir (The Man Who Wanted to Know). Johanna ter Steege won a European Film Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1988.
The Vanishing was praised on international release. It was released in the United States in 1991 and made the list of Top Foreign films of 1991 by the National Board of Review. Desson Howe of The Washington Post praised the film's avoidance of cliches, noting that it is "refreshingly free of manipulative scenes involving running bath water, jagged-edge cutlery and bunnies in the saucepan". Howe also made note of the unusual move of revealing the killer immediately and spending significant time learning about him. Roger Ebert wrote a similar approval of this in the Chicago Sun Times stating "One of the most intriguing things about "The Vanishing" is the film's unusual structure, which builds suspense even while it seems to be telling us almost everything we want to know."
The Vanishing holds a very high critical rating at the film review database Rotten Tomatoes, with 100% approval rating from critics with an average rating of 8.3/10. Empire magazine placed the film at number 67 in their list of "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.
The central situation of The Vanishing is a mystery archetype: a couple is on holiday in a foreign country when one disappears, and the other searches for the missing person. Witnesses claim to have seen nothing unusual, and authorities question even the existence of the absent partner. Rooted in the uneasiness we all feel when we’re off our home turf, this familiar nightmare is embodied in an urban legend about the Paris exposition of 1901, which inspired the novel filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes (1938). Explicitly dramatized in Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair (1950), the central idea has also been examined in films as varied as Robert Fuest’s And Soon the Darkness (1970), Philip Leacock’s Dying Room Only (1973), and Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988).
Usually, these plots offer sustained suspense but quickly deliver a solution that finds the couple reunited and the villains exposed. Indeed, Dutch director George Sluizer and writer Tim Krabbé, adapting Krabbé’s novel The Golden Egg, open The Vanishing—a Dutch-French co-production with the Hitchcockian French title of L’Homme qui voulait savoir (The Man Who Wanted to Know)—as if the “lady vanishes” rerun will be all their story has to offer. But they soon take a very unusual approach to their central mystery, which is explored from several angles. We follow Dutch couple Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) as they enter France for a cycling holiday, bickering in a manner that establishes how impulsive Saskia is, making it credible that she might just up and leave Rex at any moment. But we also track Raymond Lermorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), the middle-class psychotic behind the vanishing, as he sets up his abduction. Having revealed the identity of the kidnapper—thus daringly defusing the most obvious point of suspense—the film then goes even further, and gives the audience intimate access to his life.
Saskia sets out to buy some cold drinks at a service station and never comes back. Sluizer shows the bustling, impersonal, sunstruck, middle-of-nowhere European location as a sinister, uncaring limbo where everyone is too intent on the radio commentary on the Tour de France to pay attention to a crazy foreigner whose girlfriend has left him. In an audacious and jarring move, the film then skips three years during which no leads have borne fruit and Saskia has not turned up dead or alive. We pick up Rex with Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), his new girlfriend, and discover how an obsession with learning what happened to Saskia is poisoning his whole life. Rex chillingly admits that, given the choice between knowing the details of Saskia’s death or remaining oblivious to her survival, he would prefer the first option. An astonishing moment, it adds a darker shade to the traditional figure of the concerned hero who will never give up on a mystery. Rex’s revelation also indicts the audience’s culpability—after all, we too want above all to learn the answer, even if it is truly appalling.
The Vanishing is a study in everyday madness, rooted in the specifics of the Dutch and French landscapes and character (the bearded, jolly Raymond is every inch the French bourgeois, a wistful psychotic imp of the perverse), with acute performances from its four leads. There’s an obvious contrast between Bervoets and Donnadieu, with the hero seeming more driven and obsessive than the deceptively-calm villain, echoed in the mirroring of the flaky, captivating, maddening ter Steege with the calm, down-to-earth, long-suffering Eckhaus. Though Donnadieu has played supporting roles in French films, from Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982) to Max, mon amour (1986), and ter Steege followed The Vanishing with strong English-language roles in Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1990) and István Szabó’s Meeting Venus (1991), this is a film that gains strength from the relative unfamiliarity of its cast, making it hard for an audience to fix on a degree of sympathy with or fear of the characters.
George Sluizer had worked in the cinema since 1958, beginning as an assistant to documentarian Bert Haanstra. After his first film as director, De Lage landen (Hold Back the Sea, 1960), a documentary about land reclamation, he spent ten years on similar projects before making his fiction debut with the Brazilian-shot Joâo (1972). He continued to alternate between fiction and documentary before making an “experimental” American picture, Red Desert Penitentiary (1985). Although The Vanishing alone made his name as an international director, its methodical deliberation and ruthless spurning of convention can be seen as a culmination of Sluizer’s previous work.
Still, he has had a hard time reprising its success—literally so in the case of The Vanishing (1993), a Hollywoodized remake scripted by Todd Graff (Coyote Ugly, 2000) with an upbeat ending as “wrong” as the one imposed by Jeremiah Chechik on the 1996 remake of Diabolique. Unlike Hitchcock, whose American The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) is at once a remake and a development of his 1934 British film of the same title, Sluizer struggled when presented with the material a second time around. Talented players Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, Nancy Travis, and Sandra Bullock fail to match the icy understatement of the original cast.
It may be that The Vanishing is a one-off: a film so original, so effective, so surprising and so ruthless that it represents a single, perfect coming-together of director, writer, subject, and cast. It delivers a shattering twist ending, but has a depth and lasting creepiness that makes it repay repeat viewings. Hitchcock always argued for suspense over surprise, but The Vanishing delivers both: the first time you see it, the mystery is intriguing and the solution horrible; the second time, when you know what’s coming, it takes on a more tragic, even more horrifying dimension.
The Vanishing is a thriller, but what makes it unique than most is of the films of its genre is that it is a thriller which relies on knowledge, information, and the intelligence of its audience. It is less build on thriller cliques, cheap shocks or manipulative gimmicks. George Sluizer has conducted a brilliant and effective jigsaw puzzle along with Tim Krabbe, which was based on Krabbe's novel of The Golden Egg. The movie advances in a unique and non linear fashion, supplying essential information through a series of flashbacks that is needed for the audience suggesting a horrifying climax that is not only disturbing but is ultimately inevitable.
Actor Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu who plays the devious character Raymond Lemorne creates one of the most frightening sociopaths in the history of the cinema. Raymond is a pleasant family man with a round, open face, and he seems mostly pleased with himself. We do learn how Raymond abducted Saskia, but we don't know exactly what he had done with her afterwards, besides probably placing her in a wooden box and burying her alive, which he does exactly to Rex at the end of the film. On the surface Raymond does not seem to be an evil man and he certainly doesn't fit the profile of a killer. He seems to love his family and two daughters, but throughout a series of flashbacks and clues, Raymond explains to Rex (and also the audience) that he came to the realization that he had a slight abnormality in his personality, imperceptible to people around him. He describes when he was a young boy he decided to jump from a two-story balcony. He came to think that even if it is predestined that he won't jump, how could it be predestined that he wouldn't? So, to go against what is predestined, he decided to jump which broke his arm and had him lose 2 fingers. Years later when Raymond jumped in a river to rescue a young girl from drowning he was herald as a hero by his family. But he realized her admiration wasn't worth anything unless he could prove to himself he was incapable of doing something evil. Raymond Lemorne is a clear psychopath, a man who is able to deceive everyone around him as a distinguished, educated, and loving husband and father. His lack of empathy for strangers, and yet someone who seems to lovingly care for his wife and children remind me of such evil psychopaths as John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgeway, and Dennis Rader. Like Raymond, these men could easily manipulate their friends and loved ones and secretly pull off a double life of sadism, torture and murder. Clearly the reason Raymond had the desire and need to commit such ghastly, callous and horrendous acts on another human being are to fulfill some form of sexual dominance, compulsion, and reward that he feels his life is lacking. He is perfectly calculating in planning out his murderous schemes, and his careful precision to commit such merciless acts and not get caught is extremely disturbing. Raymond is highly narcissistic, arrogant and a complete egomaniac, believing he is special enough to commit such unlawful and unmoral acts on others, simply because he can. Though actor Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu played supporting roles in several other films before this, The Vanishing is a film that gains strength and power from the relative unfamiliarity of its cast, which gives the film an added disturbing reality to its story.
I have always believed that in a film it's more interesting to reveal the villain to the audience early on and have the audience try to understand how they work, think, and feel. Most films make the villain's identity (especially in horror films) a mystery until the very end, and throughout the story simply label them as a nameless figure with a hockey mask, but I believe that's a cheap and unintelligent cop-out for a really good story. Some of the best films show the identity of the villain earlier on like in Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs or Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher, and it's more interesting to learn why the villain is doing these horrible acts then to make them some one-dimensional faceless killer hiding in the dark with a butcher knife. That's why films like The Vanishing, Le Boucher, M, The Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en are more fascinating than most thrillers because you get inside the head of the villain, and you try and figure why they do what they do. I truly believe the reason why most films don't want to explore the mind of a killer is because people are simply afraid to explore that dark side of the psyche, and learn the unfortunate truth: That these monsters who commit such unthinkable and heinous crimes are people like us, they are our neighbors, our friends and loved ones, which is why we have created the fantastical supernatural characters such as Dracula, Michael Myers, and Lucifer, because to simply label them as 'monsters' is much more comforting.
The Vanishing is a disturbing and fascinating study about obsession, perversity and madness. There is an interesting contrast between the two lead character's Rex and Raymond, two character's who ultimately feed off one another, and who in many ways need each other. Raymond is morbidly curious on Rex's growing obsession on what has happened to his wife, and he cruelly plays off Rex's unhealthy obsession by toying with him, having him chase down cryptic notes and postcards all the while Raymond devilishly watches, blending in unnoticeably in the background. This sick obsession begins to take over Rex's entire life, poisoning all his future relationships with anyone who tries to reach out and come close to him. Rex's obsession becomes so strong that he would rather end up risking the safety of his own life to simply discover the truth no matter how appalling it truly is. Raymond throughout the three years thrives on Rex's obsession even stating that he admires Rex's dedication and perseverance to never give up; In many ways Rex's obsession of the truth becomes Raymond obsession to toy with him with the truth. Even though Raymond is the one who is clearly unstable, Rex is eventually driven to near madness presenting to the audience a person who is much more irrational, and crazy than the deceptively calm and clever Raymond. Ultimately this perverse and unstable relationship between the two character's has to come to a close, when Raymond finally gathers up the courage to finally confront Rex, to give him the answers he has been seeking. When their ultimate face-off arrives for one another, the two probably throughout the three years have grown to know one another, and understand each other's inner most fears, thoughts and desires than most of their family and friends who have known them their entire life. The Vanishing is what made George Sluizer a well-known international director, and he had a much difficult time reprising its success when he directed an American remake of the film in 1993. The Vanishing American remake is all that is wrong with American cinema, trashing a perfect thriller by changing the ending of the film to a more upbeat and accessible ending that is a complete insult to the intelligence of American audiences. The original is an existential thriller which unfolds deep and sinister themes of obsession and perversion. The remake is a commercialized slasher movie with a formulaic conclusion. This downbeat ending in the original film is the perfect fitting to a mere perfect film, and no other ending could work. This is why the American remake is so obscene, so atrocious and so unneeded just as the 1996 remake of Diabolique or the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. The Vanishing is a merciless and effective thriller, a thriller with ideas, information and intelligence. It is a perfectly crafted story with such a ruthless and gut wrenching twist ending of such depth and profoundly unrelenting power. Hitchcock always argued that a great suspense film needs suspense over surprise, but The Vanishing has both. It's ending is not only tragically horrifying, but disturbingly inevitable. It can end no other way.