Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Vanishing (1988)

"I gotta cut loose -- SPOOR Loose!  Kick off your Sunday shoes!"
With a name like Smuckers Spoorloos, it has to be good!  Actually, "Spoorloos" is Dutch for "Without a Trace."  For whatever reason, the English translation of this Dutch-French film opts for the tamer (and less TV crime procedural-friendly) The Vanishing.  You might remember this title, because it was remade for American audiences in 1993, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock.  It wasn't very good.  This, the original version, was universally acclaimed and has built up a reputation over the years as a unique thriller experience.  I've been looking for a good thriller fix for a few days now (since the wretched Suspect Zero); can The Vanishing satisfy my craving for suspense?

The film begins with a Dutch couple, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) road-tripping through France.  While at a rest stop getting gas, Saskia runs inside to grab a few drinks for the road and Rex remains with the car.  And that is the last time Rex ever sees Saskia.  He looks everywhere, questions employees and customers, but no one has seen where she went.  One employee noticed her talking to a man by the coffee machines (...but she was buying a Coke and a beer...that's odd), and Rex notices Saskia's red hair in the unfocused background of a Polaroid he took of the rest stop, but that's all the evidence there is that Saskia was even in the shop.
Don't they look like they're in love?
Three years later, Rex is still trying to find Saskia.  He pesters the police, puts up posters all over, and is quite vocal about her disappearance.  He has a new girlfriend, but he can't fully move on with his life without knowing if Saskia is alive or dead, and what happened to her; this obsession is ruining his life.  Every so often, he gets a postcard with a date and location on it, presumably from the person who disappeared Saskia; Rex goes to every meeting place, but the sender never reveals himself.  After the most recent meeting went by uneventfully, Rex buys time on television to plead with the responsible party to contact him --- Rex doesn't want revenge or justice, only an end to the suspense he has been living with.  Surprisingly, this method works.  The man responsible for Saskia's disappearance (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) approaches Rex and promises to tell all... but only if Rex agrees to experience everything Saskia did on that fateful day.
Sometimes evil wears a chin beard.

I have trouble judging the acting in foreign films sometimes, due to the delay between the actors speaking their dialogue and the speed that I read the subtitles.  The Vanishing adds another layer of complexity to the mix by having characters speaking different languages, but with no difference in the subtitles.  I'm painfully ignorant about languages, so Dutch and French sound similar to me; I get the feeling that I missed out on a little by not noticing how Rex and Saskia handled the French language.  Oh well, that's what I get for ignorance.  I thought the acting was mostly fine in this movie.  Gene Bervoets was surprisingly low-key as the bereaved Rex; I think he kind of looks like a cross of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dominic West (with all the good and bad that implies), but I didn't have any strong feelings about his performance overall.  I liked Johanna ter Steege as the effervescent Saskia; she just had to be kind of likable and innocent for her part to work, but I think she accomplished that task well.  This movie was more about the villain than the wronged couple, though.  Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu delivered a very mundane performance in a role that proves that bad people are not as obvious as popular culture leads us to believe.  He did a good job portraying an everyman, as well as that little something that separates sociopaths from the rest of us.
Another humdrum day of being evil and tempting a grieving man.

In all honestly, I did not notice anything particularly impressive about George Sluizer's direction in this film.  I thought he got sympathetic performances from all the leads, with none of them delving into overacting, but he didn't show any tendency for fantastic camera work or any observable impact on the performances.  What was impressive, though, was the way the story was assembled.  The screenplay was co-written by Sluizer (and co-written by the author of the book on which it is based) and it spends a lot of time in flashbacks and gives a shocking amount of insight into the film's villain.  The philosophical justifications he gives could have come across as eye-rollingly lame, but with the amount of time and care that Sluizer spends developing the character, those reasons become chilling.  If you told me that I would like the structure of this film, even though there is absolutely no suspense over who actually took Saskia, I wouldn't have believed you.  Sluizer deserves considerable acknowledgement for assembling this movie in a unique and fulfilling way.

As far as thrillers go, I don't really think this is too "thrilling."  It is suspenseful, though.  As I mentioned before, it isn't conventionally suspenseful --- the suspense comes from watching Rex's choices after the bad guy introduces himself.  Is this movie predictable?  You can definitely argue that, although I think the ending is more inevitable than predictable.  What's the difference?  Audience engagement, primarily.  I was drawn in by this story and I had the stereotypical horror movie audience thoughts ("Don't go into the basement, dummy!"), but even when I thought I knew what would happen, The Vanishing handled the plot adeptly in interesting ways.  The ending, even if you see it coming, is a memorable one.  I think the shock of the story has lost a little bit of its punch in the last twenty-odd years, and I would have appreciated a little more development of the bad guy (specifically, at his watershed moments), but this is still a solid suspense movie --- which is surprisingly rare to come by.

In an interesting (to me, at least) side note, The Vanishing was not nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, despite tons of critical accolades.  In fact, it wasn't even submitted for the Academy Awards, because it didn't have enough Dutch language spoken in it to qualify.  I never knew there were qualifications for these awards, aside from where they were made.  The more you know...

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