Horror films concern disruption, isolating and dramatizing that moment when the taken-for-granted stability of “civilized” society crumbles into chaos. The challenge in conveying a sensation of real violation in a horror film resides in the fact that audiences flock to the genre specifically to feel it, which is to say that instability ironically represents stability in this context, as you’re getting what you pay for in a brokered, preordained fashion. The most shocking thing a horror film could really do, then, would be to simply have nothing happen—and this is the key to The Vanishing’s weird, fairy-tale power. George Sluizer’s film is structured as a mystery-thriller, but there’s ultimately very little mystery and few conventional thrills, and so the blunt, dead-stop of the anti-climax subsequently carries an implicatively existential weight. The narrative’s refusal to provide any catharsis, either terrible or joyous, carries a hint of perversity that appears to point toward godlessness, if not of proper life, then at least of cinema.
The Vanishing presents a nightmare of total explicability, draining the horror film of its one essential source of optimism, which is the assertion, however awful, that there’s more to life than meets the eye. Rex (Gene Bervoets) is eaten up with the specifics of his girlfriend Saskia’s (Johanna ter Steege) disappearance, and though he never says this, it’s clear that he assumes that there must be a grand explanation, that she suffered an ordeal that he must unravel and experience, painfully, but with a sense of order having been restored. He’s right and wrong: Saskia certainly suffered an ordeal, but there’s still virtually nothing to know. The film’s villain, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), shares with Rex this great yearning to look through the maw of awfulness so as to prove that existence is informed with an ultimate sense of unbreakable structure. (Both men truly are looking for God.) Raymond tests what he calls “predestination”—to see if there’s a biological fail-safe within him that prevents his commission of atrocity.
There’s an undeniable element of white privilege to this obsession with order, of which Sluizer is certainly cognizant. There are plenty of people who require no confirmation of this world’s propensity for chaos, to put it quite mildly, but Rex and Raymond are comfortable enough to enjoy the luxury of residence in their own heads—certainly Raymond, a teacher with a lovely family (including a daughter, who, in a sick touch, resembles Saskia) who has something fatally wrong with him inside. The Vanishing has a strain of pitch-black comedy that recalls the films of Claude Chabrol, particularly in the late sequences where Raymond begins to explain his pitiful motivations for kidnapping Saskia, but Sluizer doesn’t even allow you Chabrol’s chic, chilly formal decadence as a distancing device; his work here is a nimble performance of purposeful self-effacement.
The camera is always in the right place, often highlighting the razor’s edge of chance on which we all unblinkingly reside. Sluizer’s merciless in accentuating the details that lead up to Saskia’s kidnapping, in illustrating, with Swiss-watch precision, just how many mechanisms had to drop in place so as to assure her demise. If Raymond, in a tonally risky bit of slapstick, hadn’t inadvertently drugged himself, a different woman would’ve been snatched. If Saskia had bought her roadside drinks at the same time that she impulse-purchased a Frisbee, nothing of note would happen. (Or, more metaphysically, if Rex hadn’t betrayed Saskia in the tunnel, perhaps he wouldn’t have spurred destiny’s wrath, though that read significantly reduces the film’s ambiguous majesty.) And there’s one shot, often under-acknowledged, that’s as blood-curdling as the finale, where we can see, from a vantage point that’s unavailable to Saskia, Raymond preparing his knockout drugs in broad daylight, hidden in plain sight, just inches from her.
Sluizer’s ruthlessness is invested with a real and welcome sense of humanity. Unlike most horror films, or shows like Criminal Minds or CSI, which reliably offer audiences rape and murder for their delectation as cynical, mechanically visceral plot punctuation, the woman’s death in The Vanishing actually matters, emotionally and empathetically: Sluizer forces you to face the violation of Saskia’s gallingly pointless destruction, which is shown to stop surrounding life in its tracks, and leave irreconcilable misery in its wake. In this manner, the film trumps even Psycho (the grand-daddy of genre narrative disruption) in its sense of loss, because Alfred Hitchcock kept his distance from Marion Crane, sharing Norman Bates’s puritanical revulsion with her comparable sexual freedom. Sluizer and Steege forge a protective kinship with Saskia; her presence is a ray of light that we miss.
Yet, paradoxically, and perhaps most disconcertingly, we aren’t quite primed to hate Raymond the way that we would be in a more conventional thriller either, partially because of the elaborate misdirection that implies that he has a great secret to reveal to us. Our curiosity trumps our indignant outrage, and Sluizer regards him anthropologically, the way Raymond himself regards what he’s capable of doing to Saskia. It’s fair to say that Raymond’s an intelligent, authentically immoral man, and like most such men, he’s capable of laundering his cruelty through a process of pragmatic self-justification, which the filmmaker regards with a sense of matter-of-factness that’s unforgettably fascinating and repulsive. There’s nothing quite like The Vanishing, which tethers madness and obsession to the quotidian with a fastidiousness that’s legitimately unmooring.
The image is strong and clean, with terrific background detail, which is important considering the dread that’s actively derived from the characters’ surroundings. Colors are expressive and appealing, particularly the blacks, greens, and the various skin tones. There’s some softness and graininess, but that appears to be truthful to the film’s source materials. The sound mix is shrewdly, subtly mixed, informing the atmospheric sound effects with a memorably sharp sense of tactility.
Short new interviews with director George Sluizer and actress Johanna ter Steege provide generally entertaining backstage context, but this feels like an awfully slim package for such a great, still relatively under-the-radar movie. The trailer and an essay by critic Scott Foundas round out the package.
The Vanishing remains one of cinema’s great, persuasive testaments to the flimsiness of the precarious tightrope walk that is our lives. Criterion responds with a transfer that’s not without its own signs of existential indifference, at least in terms of the supplemental booty.