The Vanishing / Spoorloos

UK DVD release date: 9th April 2003
Certificate: 12
Running time: 107 mins
Director: George Sluizer
Starring: Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege
Genre: Thriller
UK distributor:  Nouveaux Pictures
Format: DVD
Country: Holland/France

George Sluizer joined a short list of directors in 1993 that have remade their own films when he helmed the Hollywood adaption of The Vanishing starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland.  Where Alfred Hitchcock made his decision to re-do The Man Who Made Too Much due to his dissatisfaction of the final product; Sluizer’s decision was more to do with finding a larger audience for an atmospheric psychological thriller with little to save it from it’s own fatalistic tone.  Understandably the project was met with lukewarm reviews from the American press and was the second body blow to the Frenchman after having to abort Dark Blood due to the death of the film’s star (the late River Phoenix).

For those of you unfamiliar with The Vanishing, adapted from Tim Krabbe’s novel The Golden Egg, it tells the story of young lovers Rex (Bervoets) and Saskia (ter Steege) while on a cycling holiday and her untimely disappearance after a run of the mill tiff.  Three years on, with the search abandoned Rex begins receiving communications from Saskia’s kidnapper putting into a motion a game of cat and mouse, risk and trust and ultimately one of a test of true love.

As a young child this film made a lasting impression on me as it’s far more menacing and atmospheric than it’s certificate would suggest.  Unlike a lot of the thrillers from the late 1980’s and early 90’s the greatest frights and fears were not visual and graphic like the generic Freddy’s or video nasties but rather a cerebral slow boil that refuses to give you an inch of respite.  Returning to the film over twenty years later and age has done little to lessen that affect, if anything experience and knowledge of the film has only led to an even greater level of unease and claustrophobia.  Sluizer’s direction of this story is masterful, he has an understanding of the path of the film and uses his cinematography to show the audience the large and expansive world in which the film exists only to narrow off avenues of escape one by one.  The close relationship between camera and character, the use of staging, lighting and reflective surfaces laying the information on the screen and removing the need to have multiple shots to tell the story when one of two perfectly constructed shots will do the same thing.  It works brilliantly as there is rarely a moment after the disappearance of Saskia that the audience is left feeling un-menaced or claustrophobic from his craftsmanship.  Henny Vrienten’s score is pitch perfect, no pun intended.  His stylings are at times minimalistic and at others naturalistic weaving themselves into the core of the film, as all good scores should, becoming so much a part of the film that you tend to forget about the music.  For a composer on a film of this nature it must surely be a compliment to say that you’d didn’t notice the music.  This compared to Jerry Goldsmith’s heavy handed offering for the remake is a perfect example of how non diagetic sound should be; and is by far Vrienten’s best work.  Only Philip Glass’s score in The Thin Blue Line betters it in how audio in being subservient to visual can make the entire experience greater.

Bervoets (as Rex) plays to desperate, then grieving, then obsessed boyfriend wonderfully always flirting with a deeper darkness and tragedy that will threaten to destroy him and those around him but never tipping his hat too much.  At no point does his portrayal feel like it’s acting and he uses the stillness of the camera and quiet moments on screen to great thematic and characterising affect.  These moments are worth so much more inferred and are honestly heartbreaking at times.  Donnadieu as Raymond Lemorne (Saskia’s abductor) is menacing, terrifying and unlike the sort of movie villains you are treated to in thrillers.  A more realistic and fleshed out interpretation of a sociopathic human being similar to Brian Cox’s Hannibal Lector in Manhunter rather than Hopkins’ Academy Award winning panto baddie ala The Silence of the Lambs.  This is a man that is dangerous because he flies below the radar, he does not have any quirky character traits or incredible intellect, he is a normal everyday Joe.  The type of person you never suspect and is always described as “a nice quiet man” when being reported on the news and because of this is an absolutely frighteningly human.  Not one for grandstanding Donnadieu plays the restraint brilliantly and is, at the risk of generalizing, uncharacteristically French is him downbeat manner.  Johanna ter Steege is sparkling as Saskia, the most difficult and unrewarding of all the roles.  There isn’t enough screen time to completely flesh out your character in order for the audience to feel a connection with you but if you don’t manage that then the narrative loses all importance, as what’s an abduction film when you don’t care about the missing person?  It must have been nerve wrecking for her in her first film role to be the central character of the narrative and to have such pressure placed on her performance and to her credit has risen to the occasion.  Her beauty is an unconventional one but one so naturally conveyed on screen with her relaxed presentation that it shines through and you can immediately see what Rex finds attractive in her, making his loss that much greater.  There is a gang of supporting performers but make no mistake about it; this is a film solely about three people.
There are some short comings in the film, there are holes and collapses in narrative and causal logic respectively but the film has such a thick veil of tension from the moment Saskia disappears in the tunnel that you never get enough room to either pick up on them or refute the logic in some of the actions.  What the film has, which is lacking in the remake, is patience.  The audience do not get a chance to dictate the speed of the film and it is the loss of this control that’s ever present in the triadic narrative structure that is so distressing to a viewer.  It is this tension between film and viewer, coupled with the narrative, that Sluizer uses to wonderful affect in creating an almost Greek tragedy in modern day Holland.  In comparison the reworking for the U.S market and all the cinematic expectations that come from test screenings and market research led to a “reimagining” of the ending, a general obliteration of atmosphere and most tragically a loss of all things Greek as the notion of fated actions simply got lost in translation.  

The Vanishing has not lost any of its dark menace since it's release in 1988 and is a perfect example of the long lasting affects of the cerebral thriller and will leave you unnerved and going to bed with at least two lights on.


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