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‘The Vanishing’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 08, 1991

When Saskia and Rex, a young Dutch couple, stop off at a gas station in France, Saskia goes to the store to buy some drinks. She never returns.

What happens to Saskia (Johanna Ter Steege) is what "The Vanishing," a 1988 Franco-Dutch production, is all about. For the obsessed Rex (Gene Bervoets), the search will take three years. He appears on television, he blankets the country with posters. He follows leads. At the conclusion of this extraordinary, gripping film, he will get to the bottom of the mystery. What he finds out will stay with you for a long time.

Director George Sluizer unfolds his story with non-hysterical -- but nonetheless unnerving -- precision. "Vanishing" is refreshingly free of manipulative scenes involving running bath water, jagged-edge cutlery and bunnies in the saucepan. Cutting back and forth in time, he traces the paths taken by the three main characters (who include the creepy force behind all this), as if running an omniscient finger along the lines of a fatalistic road map.

In an unusual tack, the movie reveals the likely perpetrator almost immediately. "Vanishing," almost scientific in approach, reserves its suspense, not for the Who, but rather the What and Why. The mystery of Saskia's whereabouts is what matters; her fate hangs in the balance right until the earth-shattering conclusion.

"The uncertainty," says this mystery man, who by then has come to appreciate Rex's dedication to his missing girlfriend, "that's the worst part."

In another unusual development, the movie takes significant time visiting with the stranger, revealing his eerily normal family life; even venturing into a scene from his childhood, where a lifelong fascination with breaking predestiny began, and an obsession with exactitude continues. Under scrutiny, this character is the weakest link in the movie. We are asked to believe in a person with an intellectual, bloodless quest, and without the emotional underpinnings that would trigger such a motivation. Nevertheless, actor Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu's sterling performance creates a credible, chilly fusion of humanistic and sociopathic impulses.

When Rex later tells him, "I don't hate you. I don't hate lightning," the comparison is highly appropriate. This stranger is a walking, arbitrary agent of misfortune in the couple's life.

Sluizer also creates a marvelously foreboding scene at the beginning. Rex and Saskia run out of gas in the darkest recess of a highway tunnel. Traffic blares scaringly past. Panic causes them to argue. Rex, toting a gas can, heads down the road, leaving Saskia in the car. They are separated from each other, yet connected, in the claustrophobic darkness. It echoes a dream Saskia relates, about the two of them enclosed in separate eggs and floating through the universe, and it's also a prescient precursor of things to come.

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