The Vanishing is a suspenseful, engaging thriller that provides us with interesting characters, a halfway plausible setup, and then destroys everything that has come before in the last ten minutes.
The premise: While on vacation in France, Dutch native Saskia goes missing at a rest stop. Three years later, Saskia’s husband, Rex, is still searching for her. He tirelessly puts up posters around Amsterdam, gets interviewed on the local news, and even drives away his new girlfriend, Lieneke, with his obsession. We soon learn Saskia was snatched from the rest stop. We meet her kidnapper, Raymond. He’s a family man, clean-cut, well-off, a chemist. This is how he knows the properties of chloroform, which he used on his victim. Played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, in a spookily calm performance, Raymond moves with mercurial ease between having dinner with his wife and kids, and rehearsing his diabolical plan right down to the nth detail, which includes monitoring his heart rate. He tries his scheme on a series of women–and ends in failure each time. And then he meets Saskia, whom he charms, in a terrific scene, over who has enough Francs for a cup of coffee.
For three years, Raymond has been sending clues about his identity to Rex, and the two finally meet. Raymond promises to tell Rex everything, but Rex must accompany him back to France. Here is where the film engages in a fascinating character study, as the two drive a lonely highway across the border, and Raymond taunts Rex–whom he suspects has reached the breaking point of his obsession–with cruel details of the kidnapping, as well as his own realization of the moment he became a sociopath. What he will not reveal is exactly what happened to Saskia.
Now I need to warn you that I’m moving into spoiler territory. Why? Because I must, if I’m going to reveal why I found the ending so frustrating.
Raymond provides Rex with an astonishing offer that Hitchcock would have been proud of: If he allows himself to be drugged the way Saskia was, Rex can experience the aftermath of the kidnapping as she did. He’ll finally know what happened to her. Take it or leave it.
Let me interject my vastly unwanted opinion: Only a man completely shattered would ever accept such an offer. And since this is exactly what Rex does, I would have expected the character to believe he had nothing else to lose. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. It’s certainly, by no means, the fault of Gene Bervoets, who plays Rex with a convincing level of intensity; it’s that of writer Tim Krabbé, upon whose novel, “The Golden Egg,” the screenplay is based. He doesn’t take Rex far enough in his anguish, grief or obsession. Rex seems more ambivalent–perhaps tired and weary–than driven almost to madness with the desperate need to find out what happened to his wife. So when he dutifully gulped down a cup of coffee spiked with a sedative, I threw up my hands, incredulous that a seemingly intelligent man would believe the word of an admitted sociopath who could easily be lying.
What happens after Rex takes the drug, I won’t say. I’ll tell you that when the ending came, as depressing as it was, I felt cold and shut out. Krabbé and director George Sluizer give us a great set-up, follow the suspense nearly until the end, and then expect us to suspend our disbelief so much that the ending has all the weight of a deflating balloon.
1988; starring Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets; directed by George Sluizer; 107 min; not rated; in Dutch and French with English subtitles; available on Criterion.