Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege, Gwen Eckhaus
Director:  George Sluizer
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  September 18, 2001

“I need to know.”

Film ***

Couple the inexplicable disappearance of a girlfriend at a rest stop with an obsessed boyfriend’s three-year hunt to find out what exactly happened on that day, and you might have the makings of a traditional Hitchcock picture or a standard film noir.  But The Vanishing, a French-Dutch production from director George Sluizer, is anything but traditional or standard.

The structure of the film is odd, yet intriguing in its originality.  We spend time at the beginning of the movie with said couple, Rex (Bervoets) and Saskia (ter Steege), two Hollanders on vacation in France.  They play and bicker like any other couple, and all seems normal up until the moment she vanishes without a trace.

The picture switches focus to the man responsible, Raymond (Donnadieu), and we spend time getting to know him.  The film, in other words, is not a typical mystery.  We know who is responsible long before Rex does.  The question is not who, but the burning one of what…what happened to Saskia on that ill-fated day?

Raymond is a singularly unique movie villain in that as an actor, Donnadieu doesn’t feel the need to inject the character with psychological tics or other unnerving physical traits.  His eyes are calm, not wild.  His manner is quiet and thoughtful.  He seems to be a good husband and father to his family.

As a villain, he’s cool and calculating, literally.  He scribbles mathematical notes on everything from the drugs he wants to use on his victims, to time formulas and driving distances.  He practices.  He’s well prepared.  Several attempts at kidnapping go awry; Saskia is his first real success.

As three years go by, it is not Raymond who is unsettled, obsessive or unable to function…it is Rex.  His relationship with a new love interest, Lieneke (Eckhaus), is falling apart because he can’t get Saskia out of his mind.  He knows the chances of her being alive after all this time are practically none, but he still needs to find out what happened.  He still puts up posters everywhere, and appears on TV, begging for information.

Finally, Raymond enters his life, confessing he is behind the disappearance.  What follows is the film’s final half hour: intriguing, startling, and unforgettable.  Though Rex could go to the cops with Raymond, doing so would mean never knowing what happened to Saskia.  Raymond, on the other hand, promises to reveal everything…if Rex will agree to experience first hand what Saskia did.  Chilling.

Originally released in 1988, The Vanishing didn’t enjoy a theatrical release in the United States until 1991.  Two years later, Sluizer would make one of the biggest mistakes of his career:  agreeing to remake his own movie for Hollywood.  The resulting picture, with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland, was well-acted, but with no teeth or substance.

The original is an experience that can’t be repeated or duplicated…to follow the formula again would be a waste of time.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure how well the movie would stand up to multiple viewings…lacking the traditional structure of a mystery, one is left without the experience of seeing something unfold again, but rather, waiting for the inevitable climax.

But that first viewing is certainly an unforgettable experience.  The Vanishing takes something typical and makes it atypical, letting the audience know aspects of the story before the main character is even aware of them, letting them stay perfectly in tune with the developments until it finally goes in directions no one could anticipate.  It creates suspense with the information it gives instead of the details it withholds. 

Video ***1/2

Criterion delivers a near perfect anamorphic transfer for this film.  In fact, the majority of the scenes in the film rank amongst the very best I’ve seen on DVD this year.  Colors are bright and plentiful, and detail so sharp and accurate that even trees in groves have distinct leaves and subtle differences in shades of green.  Flesh tones are very natural, and the film is unmarred by aging effects.  Darker scenes are about half and half; some of them render very well, maintaining detail and integrity, and others become a little more hazy and murky, with some noticeable grain.  Ironically, in darker scenes, blacks are never quite deep or true, but in lighter ones, they are much more solidly rendered.  A few very minor complaints aside, this is an excellent looking disc for the majority of the presentation, and should please fans greatly.

Audio **1/2

This is a decent single-channel mono offering…dialogue is in Dutch and French, so its clarity wasn’t really an issue.  The track is clean, with some satisfying louder moments from time to time, so there are no real complaints.

Features *

Only a trailer.


It’s this simple:  if you see a copy of The Vanishing on your video store’s shelf, and you recognize the people acting in it, that’s not the one you want.  Opt instead for the original, made five years earlier by the same director outside of Hollywood’s influence, and now available on a terrific looking DVD from Criterion.  This is the one that will unnerve you so quietly you won’t even really see it happening.