George Sluizer’s 1988 thriller The Vanishing scares us not with the usual shrill notes and stings but with its cool, accumulating mood of obsession. Rex (Gene Bervoets) loses his girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) at a French service station one day — she just disappears — and he spends the next three years trying to track her down, or at least find out what happened to her. We have a fairly good idea what happened to her, because we meet her abductor, chemistry professor Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), early on. Raymond is a meticulous man, practicing his moves over and over: getting a woman into his car, locking her car door, pressing a chloroform-soaked rag over her face. I was reminded of Jack Nicholson talking about watching Fred Astaire going over his steps before an Oscar ceremony; Astaire was there only to present an award, not to dance, but he practiced walking anyway, and Nicholson concluded that “all that practice produced effortlessness.” Well, Raymond seeks effortlessness in murder.
Sluizer and his screenwriter Tim Krabbé (adapting his own novel The Golden Egg) rightly decide that Raymond is more interesting than the more conventionally heroic Rex. We spend a great deal of time with Raymond as he hangs around with his family (leading his wife and daughters in screaming, testing whether anyone in the vicinity will hear screams), and also as he approaches the business of abduction and murder as if it were a mathematical problem to be solved by trial and error. (We see a few errors.) Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu makes Raymond a comfortably smug sociopath who magnetizes the camera with his unearthly calm. Having once saved a life, he must now go the other way and experience “the ultimate evil.” It seems so rational, you see.
Rex, on the other hand, is still putting up “Missing” flyers three years later; his obsession threatens to sink a new relationship with another woman (Gwen Eckhaus). Earlier on their ill-fated trip, Rex’s car stalled in a dark tunnel, and he left to get gasoline while Saskia panicked. Afterward, she made him promise never to abandon her again. Now she has abandoned him, either by choice (although he never seems willing to acknowledge this possibility) or by force. He needs to know, one way or the other. After a while, Raymond appears and offers knowledge. We would probably not do what Rex does, but then we haven’t been in his shoes for three years. Johanna ter Steege has very little screen time, but her Saskia haunts the movie — and us — as surely as she haunts Rex. Saskia is an unburied corpse, an unsolved mystery, a ghost clanking her chains in the attic of Rex’s mind.
The Vanishing chills us in part because Raymond has taken away a woman who meant the world to Rex, simply as an intellectual exercise. Neither Saskia nor Rex have done anything to deserve this fate — but then, who does? The other thing that chills us is the elegant but brutal logic that drives Raymond and the movie itself. Saskia and Rex both dream of a “golden egg” that will reunite them in space. It seems an oblique and poetic vision, but it has a frightening application in reality.
The movie proceeds slowly but inexorably towards that reality, in a psychologically dense manner worthy of Hitchcock. There are no diabolical “moments,” though, nothing to entertain us with its wickedness. The Vanishing is diabolical and wicked enough without the big moments.