I remember seeing an interview with Roger Corman in which he described the audience reaction to one of his movies. In a particular scene, the main character, approaches a closed door, and behind that door, there could be anything. Half the audience, Corman says, screams don't open that door while the other half inches closer to the screen, afraid of what lies beyond the door but more anxious to find out what it is.
The Vanishing (1988), a French and Dutch co-production, understands that principle. It understands how horrible the truth can be and yet how we still crave it. No matter the consequences, no matter cost, we approach that door and open it, ignoring and disregarding all warnings. The truth can set you free, but how terrible it is when it brings no profit or comfort. Which is worse: not knowing the truth or knowing just horrible the truth is?
Dutchman Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and his girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) are driving through France for a vacation when they stop at a service station. Saskia goes inside the station but doesn't come out. Three years, Rex has become obsessive and desperate to know what happened the day Saskia vanished. He goes on television, begging the culprit to come forward. He's so consumed he alienates his new girlfriend Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus). Meanwhile, the perpetrator, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) carefully observes Rex before announcing himself and offering to reveal exactly what happened.
The Vanishing is about obsession; how far will Rex go to find the truth about what happened to Saskia? "Sometimes I imagine she's alive," Rex says. "Somewhere far away. She's very happy. And then, I have to make a choice. Either I let her go on living and never know, or I let her die and find out what happened. So... I let her die."
Rex allows Saskia's disappearance to completely take over his life. Three years later, he's still hanging fliers and posters around, asking for any information. He travels to France five times after receiving postcards from someone claiming to be responsible and asking for a meeting only for no one else to turn up. He even lets Lieneke walk out of his life because he can't let go of the past. Not knowing what happened has destroyed his life.
Raymond is not like other cinematic killers. We learn early on he's the culprit, but we see he is a professor and loving family man with a wife and two daughters. As critic Mark Kermode described him, he's "boringly normal," a man just wondering if he's capable of evil. His story is intercut with Rex's. We watch his actions leading up to the crime, how he prepares for it, what steps he anticipates, and how it almost falls apart on a number of occasions. He succeeds because of his anonymity, ability to blend in with a crowd, and dumb luck.
Everything comes to a head when Rex and Raymond finally meet face-to-face. Like John Doe in Se7en, Raymond presents himself to his would-be pursuer, offering the truth if Rex is willing to experience what Saskia did. As Roger Corman might say, half the audience is screaming don't do it, and the other half is egging him on. The final resolution, if you can accept Rex's decision, is a shot to the gut, ending the movie with a haunting finality (of course the Americanized remake butchered this part. The only curious aspect of the remake is how it was also directed by George Sluzier, seemingly forgetting what made his original version so powerful).
Yes, The Vanishing is a thriller, and yes, it's a mystery, but it's not a cat-and-mouse thrill ride like Silence of the Lambs or Se7en. There aren't any chases down long, dark alleys or scenes where the killer sneaks up on the hero, and yet it remains a creepy, paranoid experience. Knowledge is power and suspense.