A metaphysical puzzle contained within the conventions of a thriller, The Vanishing, an adaptation of Tim Krabbe’s novel, achieves a surprising mastery of thematic exploration without sacrificing elements of narrative suspense. Numerous films that want to create surprise do so through characterisational sacrifice: through making, say, the antagonist serve the plot as the villain loses the mystery of their singularity: their thematic possibilities. There are several ways in which this can happen. The villain offers behaviour inconsistent with what has gone before; they offer plot exposition to justify their actions, or they too readily reveal a socio-political or psychological motive for their deeds. Here are examples of each: Jagged Edge, with Jeff Bridges not the good guy we’ve been presented with, but a socio-path; the slippery André Dussolier in Tell No One explaining his actions as the film moves into flashback in its last act, and Ransom, with Gary Sinise insisting that as a former cop he is fed up with the class divisions in society and wants a cut of the wealth. In each case, the mystery of the singularity is lost to the mechanics of plot: characters become ciphers, and the theme is completely surrendered to the story.
George Sluizer’s film (remade of course Hollywood style with Bridges several years later, and suffering from some of the very problems we’ve addressed above), decides that narrative mystery is secondary to character exploration, and takes the risk that an early revelation of much of the narrative surprise will be compensated for by intrigue of character. Many a film so insistently wants narrative surprise that it risks losing exploration of character by keeping the antagonist vague. The villain remains a shadowy rather than mysterious figure, a character kept off-screen rather than mysteriously on-screen as they become people we don’t so much want to understand as for the protagonist to catch. It isn’t their mysteriousness that is so important; it is their dangerousness. In Bond films, for example, the villains are usually dangerous more than mysterious as we possess not so much curiosity about their actions, as feelings of tension in relation to the deeds that they will do. It is partly why we find the scene in Austin Powers where Dr Evil goes to group therapy so funny: who cares about underlying motivations in standardized villainy? It is not what the antagonist feels that counts; but what he is capable of: hence the hyperbolized actions in which they indulge as they want to take over the world.
The Vanishing however wants to keep the story narratively tentative and the theme subtly exploratory, with the first section following a squabbling but in-love Dutch couple, Rex (Gene Bervoits) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), on holiday in the South of France; the second focusing chiefly on the man who kidnaps her; the third on Rex trying to find out what happened to Saskia; and the fourth on Rex and the sociopath Raymond Lemorne (Bernard Pierre Donnadieu) meeting up and the latter explaining his motives. As the second section folds back on the first, as we realize that after Saskia’s abduction the film doesn’t then follow Raymond Lemorne in the present, but flashes back to long before Rex and Saskia’s holiday as Lemorne plans how he will kidnap someone, so the film chooses quite deliberately to risk sacrificing a key element of suspense cinema’s epistemological possibility: the whodunit. At the filling station where Saskia goes missing, we have conspicuously seen Lemorne, so when the film moves from Rex and Saskia’s story, it is an example of guilt by inference: why else would we be following Lemorne unless he is responsible or at least implicated in Saskia’s disappearance?
The film understands that capital gains can be made through apparent narrative eschewal: the characters of Rex and Raymond become more enigmatic and the themes become more focused. Let us suppose that the enigma of the characters reside in a very different yet in some way shared sense of perversity, and that the themes explored are variations on Hannah Arendt’s now famous banality of evil; André Gide’s notion of the acte gratuit. In relation to the former, both Rex and Raymond are possessed of perverse instincts, an instinct that wants to know, perhaps, more than it wants to feel. This is evident when Rex tells his new lover that he would probably prefer to know what happened to Saskia and that she be dead, than not know and that she were alive. Near the beginning of the film, after their car runs out of petrol in the middle of a tunnel, Rex leaves Saskia alone, scared and fretful, while he goes to pick up some fuel. When he leaves the tunnel he smiles, as though strangely happy that he has left her in there on her own. It as if Raymond seems to know there is a shared affinity between the two of them, and perhaps why he chooses to send the occasional postcard to Rex asking him to return to the South of France after Lemorne sees postcards asking if anybody can offer information on the missing Saskia. Are both drawn in very different ways to a metaphysics of evil: to understanding the darker sides of human nature? Where in Rex’s case it is to find out what happened to Saskia; in Raymond’s it is to confess to the ingeniously simple motive for his crime: to show how arbitrary an action can be, no matter how elaborate the process to enact the murder.
Here we have the banality of evil and the acte gratuite, with Raymond perhaps fascinated by the possibility of chance in a life given over to conformity and convention. Raymond is a family man in his forties, who announces no doubt with absolute sincerity that he is “probably the only Frenchman who can boast of having only known one woman in his life”. His curiosity lies elsewhere, in turning inside out Arendt’s claim that the banality of evil comes not from sociopathic behaviour but from conformity: from accepting the social norms whatever they may be and acting accordingly. In Raymond’s case it is also a banality of evil, but his conformity creates the space for an individual act of liberty: that he is a man capable of extreme behaviour through the banality of the environment in which he lives. By kidnapping and burying Saskia alive, he creates a very personal act of evil, and yet hardly a motivated one. It is an acte gratuit no matter the planning. The term comes from Gide’s novel Les Caves du Vatican, where a person pushes an old man from a train for no apparent reason. Such an action is clearly impulsive while Raymond’s is not, yet both share the element of the unmotivated: Raymond could just as easily allow the person to live as kill them. Indeed at one moment he explains that it was only through chance that Saskia dies rather than another woman who was ready to enter his car moments before: he sneezes into the ammonia covered handkerchief and has to disappear into the toilets. It is an example of the unmotivated but the thoroughly premeditated, where the acte gratuit lacks both motivation and premeditation. It is an arbitrary act within an arbitrary motivation; Raymond’s a thoroughly crafted killing that has neither a personal motive nor a personal subject. He tells Rex that he wanted to know what the reverse of a heroic act would be like after he saves a young girl from drowning in a canal. It could have been another woman entirely. It is gratuitously motivated and gratuitously targeted, but so carefully planned that it is as though the crime neither has a perpetrator nor a victim, only a problem solved. Lemorne creates a murder rather than kills someone, and strictly speaking he kills no one. Both Saskia and Rex will suffocate to death, by being buried alive, but Raymond will not actively kill them.
The deaths are banal: with no blood and no apparent pain, for Lemorne will not witness the gurglings, groans and cries of his victims, as they would have been merely sleeping when he puts them in their coffins. Certainly there is fear and anger, with Saskia’s eyes petrified as Raymond applies the ammonia, and Rex pacing up and down with frustration and irritation as he decides whether to take the drink that will put him to sleep, but blood and pain Raymond would probably assume only murderous amateurs would create. This is banality of evil as neatness of event. Raymond looks like the sort of man who would make sure there is no evidence of the deaths as he would insist there were no crumbs left on a table after finishing his baguette.
Such perfectionism seems hardly accidental to the form, with Sluizer offering a work that has a quiet cleanliness of its own. This is a film interested in the craft more than the graft of murder: fascinated by the meditative possibilities in the intricacies of the deed over the adrenalised possibilities common to the thriller form. After all what does a thriller mean in its basic sense? “A sudden sensation of excitement and pleasure”, the Collins English Dictionary says, but there is little that is sudden in The Vanishing, as the film searches out not what we might call palpitative suspense, but inexorable tension, as one realizes the nature of the unfolding event. This is cognitive fright, a slow-burn awareness of the banality of evil as the motiveless crime seems to permeate into a full blown metaphysics of loss. The film finds a form to explore a question bigger than the usual narrative parameters of suspense fiction; and it might be useful to invoke Claude Chabrol’s films (an acknowledged influence on Sluizer) and a couple of books, Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, and Andrew O’Hagan’s The Missing. Numerous Chabrol films don’t quite trust the generation of suspense kinetically; there needs to be a dimension within the tension that is psychologically revelatory: that turns murder into an act of self-expression. In Les biches, a young woman murders the woman whose personality she can’t quite free herself from; in La femme infidele, a husband kills his wife’s lover as if in a crime not quite of passion but of identity. The murder reminds him of who he is as he ends up imprisoned, but he also regains his wife’s affections by illustrating to what degree he is willing to be that man who loves her. In La Cérémonie, Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire take out a haute bourgeois family as if the pair of them are asserting their socio-political rights: it is like a political action out of a far deeper sense of inexpressiveness. Chabrol’s films frequently seem to deny the momentum of external tension for the mysteries of its internal form. The mechanical suspense of chase sequences and deadlines give way to inner revelations of behavioural nuance. At the end of Le boucher, the titular character ends up dead by his own knife, a man of violence when he was in the army, a butcher now by trade, and a murderer by impulse, he allows himself to become a sacrificial lamb: a man who takes his own life to prevent taking those of anybody else. His love for the beautiful, serene, Yoga practicing Hélène means the only way he can be true to her is by killing himself after various murderous deeds; just as near the end of La femme infidele, Charles can only regain his wife’s feelings by murdering her lover. Chabrol is interested in the possibilities of emotional paradox over the plot logic of immediate suspense.
In McEwan’s novel a couple lose their child rather like Rex loses Saskia: in the most banal of places, in the supermarket. In each instance it is the banality of everyday existence meeting the awfulness of a disappearing child or partner, and how one realizes the awfulness of the situation with the prosaic environment. The book evokes a pain that has no signs of violence, but creates an emotional hole that can be filled with any number of possible imaginings. It allows the capacity to think the worst without knowing what ever happened. O’Hagan’s The Missing details many of Britain’s disappeared in the post war years. “There are all sorts of missing,” he says. “The world is full of missing persons, and their numbers increase all the time. The space they occupy lies somewhere between what we know of being alive and what we hear about the ways of being dead.” There is a creepy space created here where death has no manifestation but multiple imaginary possibilities.
Sluizer offers a work that wants the eeriness of evil as much as its banality; using even suspenseful moments for their capacity to generate unnerving hypotheses without resorting to false actuality and the grotesquely violent, and out of the former creates a mode of intangible despair with which to permeate the film. He wants to create the space in the viewer always to fear the worst, but he isn’t at all interested in the gruesome effect that will realize those fears as a device. Now a good example of a false actuality would be the dream sequence: a nightmarish moment where perhaps a key character is killed, only for the film to reveal someone waking out of a nightmare: a device even competent and very good films practiced in the eighties, including A Nightmare on Elm Street and Dead Ringers. The Vanishing, which came out in 1988, offers instead the unnerving hypothesis: the feeling that something might happen that doesn’t, and creates an essentially speculative viewer response, rather than something which happens but proves only to be a product of the character’s fears. Hence while the latter is a categorically generated manipulation; the former creates in the viewer speculation. In the scene near the beginning of the film in the tunnel where Rex leaves Saskia while looking for petrol, we might understandably think of the immediate danger Rex warns them of – that the car might get crushed by another vehicle going through the tunnel – but also of the title: doesn’t the film allude to someone going missing, and is this not as good a place as any for someone to disappear? This is hypothetical tension, consistent with the comment from O’Hagan above, where one is caught thinking of the manifold ways in which a person need no longer exist, could disappear, could die. In the dream sequence we are offered one categorical action; only that it turns out to be a nightmare. The Vanishing is more interested in the sort of permeable horrors The Missing explores.
One notices this in three point of view shots when Rex returns with the petrol. As he goes towards the car with the fuel, and doesn’t find Saskia there, and after he gets in the car and drives out of the tunnel where we are given another couple of point of view shots, we are in a world of the hypothetical: where has she gone; has she walked off in the huff, been kidnapped, murdered? It is the feeling of hypothetical despair that Rex will be overcome by as he tries to find out what happened to Saskia after she is actually kidnapped. It is its inverse form that Raymond practices: if Rex horribly evokes desperate scenarios for what may have happened to Saskia; Raymond elsewhere is idly creating them as he wonders how to achieve a meaningless murder. These are two sides of the psychological coin The Vanishing explores, a cat and mouse game with Rex possessing all the curiosity of the former, but with the lack of freedom of the latter. Yet the film works in a space in between the cat and the mouse. It chooses not to focus merely on an empathic relationship with the distressed protagonist, but also epistemologically with the antagonist: his attempts to find a woman he can kidnap become our attempts also – one follows his plan of action as a job well done.
In each instance – in Rex’s and in Raymond’s – what the film achieves is complexity of character over complexity of narrative, even though the film’s plot is not linear, and there are moments where we don’t quite know where we are temporally. We noted earlier that when the film moves from Rex and Saskia’s story to Raymond after Saskia goes missing, we do not initially know where we are in time: is this after the kidnapping or before? Yet unlike numerous temporally surprising films since (including Pulp Fiction, The Edge of Heaven and 21 Grams) the film doesn’t play up this point: it folds back to explore character motive over narrative revelation. One watches less to find out what happens next than to wonder what is going on inside the characters, and how this plays out on a broader metaphysical canvas. Is Rex implicated in evil also, one might wonder, not only in that strange smile he offers leaving Saskia in the tunnel terrified, not only in saying he would rather Saskia were dead and know what happened than allow her to live and not know, but also in how he becomes fascinated by the motivations of the person responsible for his partner’s disappearance?
Yet the film doesn’t end on Rex’s terrible awareness of what happened to Saskia as it happens to him; the film moves forward to a newspaper article announcing his disappearance also. The film shows us a close-up of a front page with Saskia and Rex pictured in egg shaped frames, reminding us of the scene near the beginning of the film where Saskia has a couple of nightmares. In the first Saskia is flying through space in an egg and ‘the loneliness is unbearable’. In the second there is another egg, and if they collide, she says, it will be all over. By the end of the film they will both have died alone, encased not in an egg but in a coffin, yet with a closing image indicating that indeed maybe their disappearance, which we know is also their demise, wasn’t too unlike the nightmare she dreamt up and a stranger consequently enacted. It is the final horrible metaphysical irony of Sluizer’s film; it gives us a sense not only that evil is banal, and that the film has explored character over plot, but also perhaps even strangely and surprisingly cosmic, as if the characters are part of some wider ménage a trois beyond anyone’s ready ken.