George Sluzier’s ‘The Vanishing’ opens with a young couple, Rex and Saskia, driving to France for a romantic getaway. On the way, they pull their car into a petrol station to refill. Saskia goes into the convenience store to pick up some refreshments for the road. Rex fills the tank and waits for her return. She never does.
This terrific Belgian movie, later remade in Hollywood with Kiefer Sutherland, Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges, begins with all the necessary ingredients of a great whodunit. However, ‘The Vanishing’ is by no means a conventional mystery. It is, instead, a chilling meditation on obsession and the lengths that some people will go in order to fulfil theirs.
‘The Vanishing’ establishes that it’s not your normal whodunnit by making the bold decision to immediately answer whom, in fact, done it. In an extended flashback, Sluzier shows the events preceding Saskia’s disappearance to reveal the person responsible: the seemingly ordinary family man Raymond who obsessively rehearses his plan to kidnap a victim. He practices the routine over and over to perfect every last detail and explains in voiceover that he’s doing it simply to find out if he can.
What anchors ‘The Vanishing’ is not the quest for the criminal’s identity or his motive; it’s the question of what happened to Saskia after the kidnapping. When the film returns from its extended flashback sequence, it does so three years after she went missing with Rex fixated on finding closure. He is resolved to the fact that Saskia is almost certainly dead – after all, many years have passed. What Rex wants is simply to move on with his life. Finding out exactly what happened to Saskia has become an obsession every bit as compulsive as Ray’s kidnapping plot.
The centrepiece of the film occurs when Raymond offers Rex the closure he obsesses for with a Faustian bargain: he will share exactly what happened to Saskia but in return Rex must suffer the same fate as she. The genius of the film is that, by the time this proposal is made, ‘The Vanishing’ has put us so firmly in Rex’s shoes that we almost understand how difficult the choice is. We care about this character but we also want an answer.
‘The Vanishing’ ingeniously uses the obsessive nature of mystery stories – the compelling need for resolution – to question how far one would go in pursuit of one. It is a film where, ultimately, both Ray and Rex make disturbing choices because of their own respective fixations: one takes a life and the other, as Rex agrees to the Faustian bargain, gives his own. The climactic scene, in which Rex experiences what truly happened to Saskia, is as unnerving as anything in cinema history. ‘The Shining’ director Stanley Kubrick called it the most terrifying thing he had ever seen on a big screen.
‘The Vanishing’ is 15th in our ranking of the best movies of 1988. You can find the full list in our 1988 Year In Review series.