Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), a Dutch couple, are travelling in France when they stop at a service station and Saskia disappears. Dutch director George Sluizer’s adaptation of Tim Krabbé’s novel The Golden Egg is concerned with the aftermath of the disappearance, and focuses on Rex’ obsessive quest to find out what happened to Saskia, but also on uncovering the mind of her abductor.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Saskia was kidnapped by Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu); the film gives away his identity early in the story, and its greatest strength is how much tension it instead wrings out of showing his life, drawing the audience into the chilling questions of what makes him tick and what he’s done to Saskia. Donnadieu’s performance is a masterpiece of subtlety. He plays Raymond as a genuinely ordinary man – baby-faced, mild-mannered, benevolent if slightly controlling in his interactions with his wife and daughters – making the juxtaposition with his crimes all the more disturbing. As the film follows Raymond’s life, the true horror of his actions emerges in his matter-of-fact, meticulous preparations for them, such as the unforgettable scene where he carefully rehearses the line he plans on using to lure women into his car, repeating it with a slightly different tone as he tries to find the least suspicious one.
The film’s focus is so heavily on Raymond partly because of the narrative, partly because Donnadieu’s performance is so incredible, and partly because Rex is a less clearly defined character. His obsession with solving the mystery of Saskia’s disappearance becomes more about needing to know than caring about her – at one point he says that if he had to choose between her being alive but him not knowing and knowing she was dead, he’d choose to know. Rex’ half of the story is a dark tribute to the compelling power of an unsolved mystery, but some of his reactions to it – for instance, a scene where he rolls around on the ground moaning with grief – feel slightly over-the-top. Because Rex’ reactions to the situation are so extreme whilst Raymond’s seem so normal, the film’s genius is that it manages to make Raymond the site of the human in the film, and, much like Norman Bates, an almost sympathetic character.
The Vanishing is a finely made film. I particularly appreciated the nerve-stretching score, and the many moments of beautifully constructed storytelling that cleverly play with viewer expectations, such as the sequence where Rex waits outside a café for Raymond, who has sent him a taunting note asking to meet, and the only sign that Raymond’s watching Rex is his shockingly casual appearance out of focus in the background of a shot. The Vanishing becomes more and more tense as the two men move closer together, and seemingly insignificant things fall into place to slowly reveal Saskia’s fate. The film ends on one of cinema’s famous twist endings, and while I found it slightly too abrupt, it was certainly shocking, adding to the bleak air of menace that makes the film hard to forget.