Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Eternal uncertainty and the trouble with knowing

A young Dutch couple Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) are on holiday in France. They drive a small car with twin bicycles mounted upright on the roof rack, like a pair of riderless horses, one over each of their heads. They wear unusually light colours, and Saskia, a playful, energetic strawberry blonde, radiates effervescent lightness—at one point she performs a Chaplinesque pratfall. Yet shadows loom. The couple traverses a long, dark tunnel, something out of a nightmare, and Saskia relays to Rex a recurring nightmare in which she finds herself trapped inside a golden egg. Then the car runs out of petrol—Rex’s fault—and Rex abandons Saskia to fetch a jerry can from the service station they already passed. They eventually continue on their way, but we are by now watching this immensely unnerving movie with a heightened alertness. We sense that everything, every glance or gesture or bit of happenstance, could be charged with portent. And we would be correct. We watch and wait for something or someone to vanish.   

The Vanishing (1988), the first, Franco-Dutch version of two version directed by the late George Sluzier, is newly available from Criterion and, while not a horror movie per se, is easily one of the creepiest things you could take in this Halloween. Based on Tim Krabbé’s novel The Golden Egg, it’s at once pulpy and profound, archetypical and innovative, employing an age-old anxiogetic scenario—a lover vanishes without a trace—in the service of a narrative that defies conventional strategies. Rather than build suspense regarding the perpetrator of Saskia’s kidnapping, we’re introduced to her kidnapper early on, before the kidnapping even occurs. Rather than ramp up tension in a compressed timeframe, we leap ahead several years in the middle of the film. The resolution, too, works counter to genre dictates, though I’d hate to spoil that here for those of you who haven’t seen this Vanishing.

One could even argue that the protagonist of The Vanishing is in fact not Rex but, rather, Raymond Lermorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), the middle-class family man and self-confessed sociopath responsible for vanishing Saskia. We see him make pivotal decisions and we learn a lot about his motivations, background and philosophies. He’s a nefarious figure, but also a seeker, animated by great questions: a man on a quest. In a bit of wordplay that, admittedly, probably only makes sense in English, Raymond attempts to entrap his victim by seeking assistance with a small trailer hitch. The word “hitch” gets repeated, and, likewise, Alfred Hitchcock is never far from the viewer’s mind. The Vanishing seems to have absorbed and brilliantly reconfigured elements of several Hitchcock films: The Lady Vanishes (1938), Psycho (1960), Strangers on a Train (1950), whose Bruno Anthony could be Raymond’s uncle.

But Raymond is not necessarily the most troubling character in The Vanishing, whose French title, it should be noted, is L’Homme qui voulait savoir or The Man Who Wanted to Know. Rex is just as obsessive a seeker as Raymond, but Rex’s is more single-minded: years after her disappearance, even after he’s gotten himself a new girlfriend, Rex must, at any cost, find out what happened to Saskia. This intolerance of ambiguity, or “eternal uncertainty,” as Raymond puts it, something of nearly theological force, is The Vanishing’s most psychologically fascinating and finally tragic element. And it’s one of the things that makes this film an enduringly eerie classic. 

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