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Cold Comforts

In ‘The Vanishing,’ What Can Kill You Is What You Want To Know

Still image from the movie The Vanishing.
Screenshot via the Criterion Channel

Welcome to Cold Comforts, a recurring column in which Soraya Roberts writes about the grim, harrowing, and downright bizarre movies and television shows that she nevertheless can’t stop watching, over and over again.

“And if the man who wanted to know was you?” asks the original trailer for The Vanishing, which in its original Dutch is named the much jauntier Spoorloos (which literally translates to “Without a Trace”) and in French, L’Homme Qui Voulait Savoir (“The Man Who Wanted to Know”), which is a fairly stupid title but also gets at the point much sooner, which is essentially: If someone you loved disappeared, how much would you be willing to do to find out what happened to them? The Vanishing, released in 1988 and infamous for having scared the pants off Stanley Kubrick, is the Platonic ideal of this column, a film in which the comfort and the discomfort are one and the same. Such a simple premise could easily be executed terribly (see 1993's American remake, somehow also made by George Sluizer), but, perhaps because of its core simplicity, The Vanishing was ultimately fashioned into a masterpiece.

It says something that I have read the book that The Vanishing was adapted from—Tim Krabbé’s The Golden Egg (Het Gouden Ei)—and only really remember the film. Mostly it says I’m a visual learner, but I think the film might just actually be better. Apparently Sluizer even had a hand in Krabbé’s novel; the director first connected with Krabbé as a fan of his film writing, and later provided some insight into French geography, since the disappearance in the book takes place in the south of France. Early on, Sluizer asked to adapt the story and Krabbé elected to write it. That went badly, so Sluizer took over and teased out the narrative complexity and also the dynamic between the abductor and the boyfriend of the abductee, both of them on opposing ends of the same spectrum of obsession.

As for the title, between Het Gouden Ei and Spoorloos, it’s clear which is preferable. But Sluizer doesn’t drop the egg entirely—he knows it is integral to the plot. While on a road trip through France, a Dutch woman, Saskia (played with radiant weirdness by Johanna ter Steege), recalls one of her recurring dreams to her boyfriend, Rex (Gene Bervoets, appropriately brittle), in which she is floating through space in an egg with no one else around. “The loneliness is unbearable,” she says. But this last time the dream had changed slightly, and her boyfriend had also appeared floating in a separate egg, the couple apart, but together.

The image of hovering spheres haunts the entirety of The Vanishing, from the sunny orb of a tunnel opening (with Saskia at the center, flashlight in hand—another orb—after their car breaks down), to the bright white spheres of car headlights at night, to the two glinting coins Saskia buries at the base of a tree at the truck stop where she vanishes, to the canary yellow frisbee she buys after meeting the man who will abduct her, to the white ping pong balls falling out of the car while Rex frantically searches for her, to even the yellow and white egg-hued clothing Saskia and Rex are wearing on the fateful day. The ovum theme provides a visual harmony, a barely perceptible cohesion that is otherwise unclear but keeps the viewer reassured that, yes, it will all come together at the end.

All this eggery also, paradoxically, helps to build tension. The Vanishing can be distilled into two narratives composing two competing compulsions. There is Rex’s obsession with finding Saskia, thinking every redhead he comes across at the truck stop might be his missing girlfriend, thinking every man around him in a French square could be the man who abducted her, thinking the photo he took the moment she was abducted could have captured it, thinking aloud three years later to his new girlfriend, “I’d rather be at that gas station three years ago” (the relationship doesn't end well). But it’s hard to sustain that kind of mania for an entire feature, so it is cut by a different kind of intensity, this one defined by anticipation. In this part of the film, which amounts to a sort of criminal procedural, we watch as sociopathic family man Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu mastering the every-so-slightly menacing mask of normalcy) realizes he is a sociopath and then becomes obsessed with thinking up the worst act imaginable in an effort to test his daughter’s pride in him following a spontaneous moment of heroics (Raymond saves a girl from drowning). Amidst an ongoing joke that his family thinks he is having an affair, this chemistry teacher secretly times and perfects a method of sedation, choreographs how to carry out an abduction, and scripts how to get his victim into his car.

And then we watch as these two narratives become one.

Sluizer does a really good job of marinating us in the unease of how arbitrary a crime like this can be. Raymond isn’t initially going to abduct Saskia. Even when he first meets her it’s unclear whether the thought even crosses his mind. He even tries to abduct someone else, but fails. Saskia is affable with him, they talk. She ends up leaving the shop to return to her husband, to safety. But then she goes back in to get a quick drink. For a second time, Saskia talks to Raymond—bad luck. She notices his key chain with the letter “R” on it—bad luck. She asks if she can have it—bad luck, bad luck, bad luck. Saskia ends up in Raymond’s car and that’s that. Her proximity to safety is highlighted by Rex stepping on the crushed can of pop she was carrying that Ramond’s car flattened as he was sedating her. But what did he end up doing with her? All we have seen him practice is how to catch his prey; it is still unclear what follows.

“I’m banking on your curiosity,” Raymond says to Rex of the risk he is taking meeting Saskia’s ex three years on from disappearing her. “The eternal uncertainty? That’s the worst.” The meeting comes after Rex appears on television to appeal to Raymond, having received several taunting letters from Raymond over the years. Staring straight into the camera, Rex says, “I want to know what happened to my friend. To know that, I’m prepared to do anything.” What music to a psychopath’s ears—the idea that closure can only be provided by the very person who created the need for it. What relief when Rex comes face to face with Raymond for the first time. And yet, this is where the trick of consolation plays out. Because the eternal uncertainty is not in fact uncertain. Rex is intent after three years of torture on hearing the truth and being set free, but the only freedom to be had here is freedom from death, which is the eternal impossibility. “The only way to tell you is to make you share the exact same experience,” Raymond tells Rex. Rex can find solace, in other words, but only on Raymond’s terms. And we know what those are. “If she’s dead, I’m also going to die,” Rex replies. Cut to black.

We know very well by now about the banality of evil—in this case best illustrated by the Tupperwared sandwiches cut into triangles that Raymond brings on his car ride with Rex to answer the biggest question of his life—but what about its opposite? The banality of attempting to overcome evil, of attempting to overcome death, is not so different. Relief is only an illusion, a temporary salve for unconquerable oblivion. And yet I would have the same answer as Rex. “And if the man who wanted to know was you?” It is me, I am that man (woman) and I would want to know. I would wake up in a buried box like Saskia’s boyfriend and laugh like him at my foolhardiness, at my insatiable need for satiation, a need so strong that I would take its opposite just to have it. As always, I would take the discomfort for the comfort. And just like him, I would laugh at the banality of my own mortality.

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