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Take Two #8: The Vanishing (1988) & The Vanishing (1993)

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Take Two #8: The Vanishing (1988) & The Vanishing (1993)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

Embarrassed that I’d somehow done seven of these columns without yet covering either a crude American remake of a European film or a single filmmaker’s own reimagining of his own material, I couldn’t resist the unsettling pull of The Vanishing, George Sluizer’s infamous 1993 do-over of his 1988 Danish sleeper. This thing is like the Ishtar of artless Hollywood translations, a disdainful flop described variously as “garish, clunky,” “tedious,” “an insult to the intelligence,” and “a case study in how Hollywood can make a complete mess out of what was previously a marvelous film.” What true movie fan could possibly resist?

The 1993 Vanishing is silly and woefully over-acted movie, but the rumors of its unique terribleness stem from critics who hold the original in higher regard than I can muster. The 1988 film is a relatively early and clever entry in the “Aren’t serial killers fascinating?” genre, which has a storied history (M, Psycho, Peeping Tom, Cape Fear) but reached a schlocky nadir in the ‘90s. Perhaps because of the media circuses surrounding the Gacy and Dahmer crimes and trials, or The Silence of the Lambs’s unexpected Oscar prestige, you couldn’t swing a body bag during the decade without hitting a Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider, The Bone Collector, Copycat, Diary of a Serial Killer, or Postmortem. But beyond its low-impact, distinctly psychological style, the original Vanishing is pretty much of a piece with this moment. It’s a one-trick film, and shock endings are the lowest rung of film tricks besides. If the remake stinks, that’s only because it removes the moody pacing and reveals the essential silliness under the former’s classy Euro-glaze.

In both cases, a young woman (Johanna ter Steege and Sandra Bullock) disappears from a rest stop, and her boyfriend (Gene Bervoets and Kiefer Sutherland) spends the next three years obsessively trying to find out what happened to her—not, as is made clear, trying to find her. This distinction is much more forceful in Danish version, where “Rex,” while unable to think of much else, is still a functional human being. Sutherland’s “Jeff,” however, is a broken man; he loses his job, tries in vain to hide his obsession from a new girlfriend (Nancy Travis, in a role that was much smaller in the original), barely sleeps, and worst of all, grows a stringy mourning mullet.

We also meet the killer (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu and Jeff Bridges), who spends his free time practicing a crude scheme to seduce a random woman into his car and drug her. In both films, Sluizer shows this man hard at work, perfecting his scheme through a painstaking process of Edison-like experiments and improvements. The director’s interest, if not exactly his sympathy, is certainly focused on this character, who manages to maintain a normal life as a professor, husband and father. Bridges’s psychopath is more convincing as such, despite his distracting, Peter Lorre-ish inflections, but neither character makes much sense. Why would this ostensibly warm man, clearly capable of healthy family relationships, go at this insane plan in the first place? Donnadieu’s killer explains that he once jumped in a river to save a drowning girl, which greatly impressed his daughter but left him with an inexplicable existential crisis:

“My daughter was bursting with pride. But I thought her admiration wasn’t worth anything unless I could prove myself incapable of doing anything evil.”

So he takes Rex/Jeff’s girl from the rest stop, and puts her through an experience crueler than death. This kind of warmed-over Nietzschean gobbledygook is a hallmark of the “Aren’t serial killers fascinating?” canon, which theorizes that all villains are a cross between Jack the Ripper and Goldfinger, and quite likely leading a calm suburban life when not slaughtering beautiful innocents. Has literally anyone in history has ever thought this way?

The killer confronts Rex/Jeff, and offers to explain everything to him under the ludicrous condition that the long-suffering man undergo the exact same experience that his lady did. In both cases, the men consent to be drugged, and awake to a harrowing reality out of Poe. Here’s where the European version ends, cruelly but inevitably, while the American version offers the villain his comeuppance and rescues Jeff from near-death. Imagine if Hannibal Lecter bid Clarice Starling adieu from a payphone, then turned around and got whomped in the face with a shovel.

But even so, I reject the notion that the original film was somehow more intelligent. It all builds to that climactic shot, which has its own overdone thematic logic (spoiler: Rex literally digs his own grave through an unhealthy obsession—get it?!?!?), but which nevertheless doesn’t have any particular point other than “Don’t drink poisoned coffee when a sadistic monster offers it to you.” Duly noted!

The Vanishing is sleek and handsome, and I particularly admired how Sluizer builds real suspense and unease without ever showing blood or violence—restraint he jettisoned completely in the American version. With its long takes and plaintive tone, the Danish film might be charitably compared to Antonioni’s work. But that’s a little more highfalutin than the material deserves. It’s a serial-killer movie, a fact about which the 1993 film is more honest and thus less interesting. Your choice is between the minimally clever, artfully constructed movie and an obvious and dull one. Not exactly a case of paving over paradise.

The fascinating question is why Sluizer assisted in the dumbing-down. Perhaps he couldn’t resist the Hollywood paycheck. Perhaps, as with Michael Haneke’s deplorable Funny Games remake, he figured that if L.A. was going to beat his film to death, he wanted to be guy holding its arms back. Whatever the case, the high regard for his original movie, a relatively early Criterion selection, speaks to how excited critics can get when a pulpy genre piece is made with even a modicum of intelligence and taste.

John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that feels like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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