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‘The Vanishing’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 08, 1991

George Sluizer's "The Vanishing" has a horrifying everydayness that makes it feel close-in and inescapable. It's a thriller, but it doesn't work you over with the usual genre manipulations, the standard tightening and loosening of its grip on your emotions. Its pulse is carefully measured, yet the surface blandness is all the more disturbing because its features are so familiar, so like your own life, so searingly plausible.

The film's narrative structure, which tells the same story from two points of view -- the perpetrator's and the victim's -- is complex, but the facts are straightforward. A young Dutch couple on a biking vacation in France pull into an autostop for gas. While the young woman, Saskia (Johanna Ter Steege), runs inside for soft drinks, her lover, Rex (Gene Bervoets), waits at the car. She never returns. After a desperate search, it appears that she has simply vanished. Saskia's disappearance throws Rex's life into a state of suspension. Time passes -- three years, in fact -- but his thoughts never leave that roadside park or Saskia's fair, lightly freckled features. He searches everywhere, putting up posters with her picture all over the country, even appearing on television, urging anyone who might have information about her to contact him.

Not knowing what happened makes Rex almost as much a victim as Saskia, the butt of a Kafkaesque joke, singled out for torture by a stroke of cruel existential lightning. In fact, he becomes the focus of our empathy. Saskia's image keeps flickering in his memory. Before her disappearance, she and Rex had been arguing about an incident the night before when they ran out of gas in the pitch black of a tunnel and he walked away from her, leaving her alone and terrified with the car. Forcing Rex down onto the ground, Saskia makes him promise never to abandon her again, and they make up. But the incident, which functions as a kind of eerie prologue, reverberates throughout the rest of the drama.

Indeed, Rex's and Saskia's lives have been struck by a kind of lightning. Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), the man responsible for Saskia's disappearance, is introduced to us early on, and at first he seems a very odd variety of predator. A chemist with a squat physique, horn-rimmed glasses and a meticulously groomed goatee, Raymond has a wife and two young daughters, and to all appearances adheres to every convention of a thoroughly normal, bourgeois existence.

A freak incident -- an act of heroism, actually -- scissors the slender ribbon of normalcy in his life. After rescuing a young girl from drowning, he becomes morbidly obsessed with the idea of committing an evil act to balance out his noble one. With a watchmaker's cool precision, he begins piecing together the details of his plot to abduct a young woman and carry her off to his country house. Every facet of the plan is worked out, timed, choreographed; he even rigs a playful scare for his kids one afternoon in the country to see if their screams carry down the hill to his neighbors' house.

It's the clinical detachment of Raymond's plotting that freezes the blood; there's usually some heat, some passion, in a criminal's actions, but Raymond approaches his crime with the intellectual dryness of a mathematician. Though he usually targets attractive young women (he makes several failed attempts before he finds success), sex appears to figure hardly at all in his motives. The absence of an obvious sexual engine driving Raymond's actions is, in fact, one of Sluizer's shrewder directorial gambits; it makes the character seem even more remote and even creepier, especially when he's acting the perfect father with his little girls.

There's a clinicism, too, in Sluizer's methods; he lays out the story -- which screenwriter Tim Krabbe adapted from his own novel -- dispassionately, as if he were dissecting a frog. And yet his style seems supple and not the least bit mechanical. His work is like that of a slightly more laconic, slightly more intellectualized Hitchcock -- Hitchcock in a beret.

The movie pulls you inside its downward, suffocating spirals, as if you were being sucked gently down a drain. Even if Rex were able to forget, Raymond won't let him. He's stuck at that crucial moment too, and periodically he sends postcards to Rex arranging for meetings between them. He never actually makes contact with Rex but sits nearby, watching, partly to see if he will be recognized, partly because he becomes fascinated by the young man's determination. Oddly enough, Raymond seems to develop a twisted kind of empathy for Rex, and one day, when he confronts him and offers him the chance to know what happened, it's almost an act of mercy.

The offer he makes is for Rex to experience exactly what Saskia experienced, from the point of the kidnapping on -- that's the only way. It's a proposal without much of an up side, but when it's made it writes a final chapter to the film that closes in on your consciousness like a vise. This is potent stuff, a brilliantly crafted intellectual thriller with a spring like a trap. It carries you down with it.

The Vanishing, in French and Dutch with subtitles, is unrated.

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