Even in 1988, there wasn't anything terribly original about The Vanishing. Its central image, of a victimized woman who had disappeared without rational explanation, goes back at least as far as The Lady Vanishes, while its central character, a man whose pursuit of truth has boiled over into obsession, was already a subject of parody. Even its famous shocker of an ending shouldn't have surprised anyone familiar with the noir genre that it draws from so heavily at times. But clichés, whether grounded in truth or not, become clichés for a reason, and The Vanishing serves as both a potent evocation and charged refutation of that principle. Moviegoers may like their men doomed and their women dead, but rare is the film that makes explicit a hero's (an ambiguous term in this film) need to control women even in their death. The Vanishing might not be telling us anything we don't already know, but it's something that a culture fed by (and by equal measure feeds) Law & Order: SVU would just as soon forget. To be sure, there are some spoilers ahead.
While on vacation in France, Dutch couple Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia Wagter (Johanna ter Steege) get into a nasty argument on the side of the highway. She gets out of the car; he drives away. When they inevitably reconcile, Saskia demands that he promise to never leave her, to which he agrees. Only a few hours later, they stop at a service station to refuel, she goes to buy snacks, and is never seen again. Vulnerable in a foreign country, and uncertain whether she was kidnapped or simply abandoned him, he begins a several year quest to find the truth, forsaking his personal relationships and personal safety. At the same time, we follow Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a French sociopath and family man whom we know to be guilty, but whose methods and motives remain mysterious to us until they are revealed, ultimately, to Rex.
The Vanishing's assertion that its killer and its detective run parallel missions represents another trip to the well, but Lemorne himself is entirely unique among film villains. As a sociopath, he is not given to impulsive violence or condescending monologues, but only to curiosity. His capacity for evil is mysterious even to him, though unfortunately paired with a total lack of moral compunction about exploring it. Hofman, in contrast, is a man possessed, completely unable to carry on a normal existence without the question of her disappearance answered. By the nature of his obsession, he seethes the very humanity that Lemorne lacks, and, in his own way, is far more dangerous for it. They are both searching, but Lemorne has already found his personal limit. Hofman may not have one.
And then there’s the ending. It is certainly a shock to anyone going in blind, less because of what actually happens, but by just how convincingly Sluizer and company have earned it. Up until that point, Hofman (for all his pathos) is an easy character to identify with, an everyman who reacts in the extreme to an extreme situation that is all too easy to imagine oneself in. When confronted with the man responsible for Saskia’s disappearance (and, by extension, enough of the truth as to what happened that day to satisfy most people), he becomes angry and threatens violence, but he does not act on it. He makes no effort to take vengeance on the man who has ruined his life. Instead, he takes him up on his offer to get in a car with him, and find out exactly what happened to Saskia, down to the last grimy detail. At the end, his quarrel was not with Lemorne or the government unable to find him, but with Saskia, who had, within hours, made a mockery of his pledge to never leave her. With Lemorne as his accomplice, he finds her again, fulfilling his promise but finally, crushingly failing her.
It bears repeating that Sluizer did not pioneer the correlation between heroes and villains, or their tortured relationship with the woman in their path, but in the pantheon of thrillers, only Vertigo can claim to live by the warning that LeMorne gives his daughter: "beware of heroes. A hero is someone capable of excess."
There are new interviews with Sluizer, actress Johanna ter Steege and a trailer, while the customary booklet features an essay by Scott Foundas.
"The Vanishing (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale October 28, 2014 and is rated R. Thriller. Directed by George Sluizer. Written by George Sleazier. Starring Bernard Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna Ter Steege.