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The Vanishing: The Criterion Collection

Pick a title — any title. Dutch director George Sluizer's 1988 The Vanishing has a perfectly fine moniker in English, as it concerns the story of a woman who disappears one sun-soaked July afternoon from a crowded rest-stop alongside a French expressway. In French, the film was released as L'homme qui voulait savoir ("The Man Who Wanted to Know"), which accurately describes her boyfriend, a man stricken by grief and anxiety in his three-year quest to learn the fate of his beloved. The film is known as Spoorloos ("Traceless") in Holland, which may at first seem to describe the sudden disappearance of the woman, but in fact describes her abductor. And yes, the criminal, traceless as he may be, is not the mystery in Sluizer's unusual film — the villain is hardly hiding in the shadows, but rather plays an integral role in the overall drama. In fact, while The Vanishing is a remarkable picture in several aspects, foremost among them is that Sluizer simply understands the nature of audience expectations when it comes to thrillers — and frankly, it's a lot of baggage he intends unload, right down to the final moments. The Vanishing tells the story of Dutch couple Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia Wagter (Johanna ter Steege), who holiday in France during the summer of 1984, deciding on an easygoing cycling adventure as the annual Tour de France is well underway. But on their return to Amsterdam (with their two bicycles rigged to the top of their car), they stop at a busy gas station/convenience store, where the energetic Saskia plants two stones at the base of a small tree and makes Rex swear that he will never abandon her. It is only moments later that Saskia enters the store to buy drinks — and Rex never sees her leave. Concern gives way to panic, and after searching all day and through the night, Rex realizes that something terrible has happened. Despite his boundless efforts, there is no sign of Saskia — or even that a crime has been committed. But years later, her kidnapper, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), is mildly surprised that his criminal act remains the object of a tireless, one-man search effort.

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Moviegoers love bad guys. Maybe even better than the good guys. Sure, we have James Bond, and John McClane, and every other matinee icon who battles crime to provide us with a cathartic restoration of justice, security, and social order. But film fans enjoyed the naughty tingle of watching a baddie like Dr. Mabuse have his way before movies even had sound — a tradition that has survived right up to Hannibal. Given both archetypes, Sluizer fully embraces them in The Vanishing, and on the surface it's a conventional film with a passionate hero trying to find a lost companion (an archetype readily available from Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, and repeated innumerable times since.) But the setup is merely an excuse for Sluizer to tear it down. Certainly, we see Rex as he suffers through his inexplicable, traumatic loss — but rather than focus on this aspect of the story, Sluizer reveals the villain very early in the piece and illustrates his methodical planning of the crime. What's more, the stereotypes are wonderfully interpolated. We sympathize with Rex, but are unsure what to make of his relentless campaign, as he continues to post photos of Saskia everywhere three years after her abduction, explains on television how dreams are guiding his search, and even allows his new marriage to collapse under the weight of a singular obsession. With that, how do we evaluate the sinister Raymond? He is a sociopath, but also a science professor, loyal husband, and loving father whose chief obsession is restoring a country home outside of Paris. Ultimately, The Vanishing is about Karma, cinematic and otherwise. Hollywood tells us that crime doesn't pay, that our heroes are competent and rational, that our villains are specious and never on solid ground. If predestination guides our collective film experience, it is also a concept the sociopathic Raymond rejects — and when Rex and Raymond finally meet, it is not a confrontation between good and evil, but rather a contest of wills. It's also one of the most profoundly disturbing final sequences to be found in any film — a European Se7en as written by Edgar Allan Poe. Criterion's DVD release of The Vanishing offers a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with the multi-language audio (primarily Dutch and French) in monaural Dolby 1.0 and digital English subtitles. The only supplement is the French-language trailer, but after seeing the film any extras are merely superfluous. Keep-case.

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