1988 // Netherlands - France // George Sluizer // September 6, 2011 // Hulu Plus
[Note: This post contains minor spoilers.]
George Sluizer's disturbing 1988 thriller is a kind of "daylight nightmare," wherein a sunny holiday trip changes into something abnormal and terrifying, all in plain view of scores of witnesses. It doesn't end there, however: The film's protagonist Rex (Gene Bervoets) spends three years thrashing about in this nightmare, where even charming little cafes and quiet country roads take on a fractured and ominous aspect. Thematically, the film zeroes in on the nature of obsession and the destabilizing character of an unresolved mystery, and in this respect it is kin to works as diverse as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Sweet Hereafter, Zodiac, and The White Ribbon. Unlike those films, which generally assume a more sociological or philosophical approach to the aforementioned themes, The Vanishing is an intensely psychological film. Sluizer approaches the story as two distinct journeys through personal conflict and catharsis. The first concerns Rex, whose anguish over his girlfriend's inexplicable disappearance demands an answer that may not be forthcoming. The second journey is that of Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a sociopath in the guise of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher and family man, who feels that he must act on his homicidal impulses in order to prove something to himself or the cosmos. Eventually, the two men meet and confront one another, but they don't so much interact as ricochet off another, fatefully altering each man's ultimate destination.
The film contains just enough oddness to keep the viewer ever so slightly off-balance about what they are witnessing. Events occur which may or may not be "real," but are presented in such a way that they hint at deeper truths rustling just out of sight. Henny Vrienten's score recalls Howard Shore's early work with David Cronenberg in its reliance on synthesizers that moan and squeal with sinister import. For a film that is essentially bloodless, there is a palpable aura of unsettling sexual and physical peril lurking in nearly every crevice. The fact that Rex is carelessly misogynistic and Lemorne malevolently so subtly colors the film's events, and only adds to the viewer's sense of discomfort. Sluizer cunningly uses his performers and his frame, establishing an uneasiness that silently shrieks a symphony of warning. The much-discussed conclusion, while hardly a "twist ending," is the sort of confounding anti-resolution that adds to the film's pitiless aura of authentic mortal and moral despair.