The term ”thriller” may have outlived its usefulness. In this era of kinetic shocks, how many suspense films, even good ones, leave us literally thrilled, with quickened heartbeats and other symptoms of emotional undulation? What a successful thriller does, most often, is to engross us. And by that standard, the Franco-Dutch spine-tingler The Vanishing is a knockout.
It’s about a young couple from Amsterdam, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna Ter Steege), who are on vacation in the south of France. The two have been quarreling, and right from the start director George Sluizer establishes a ripe atmosphere of dislocation. The characters stop at a large gas station-convenience store, and Saskia wanders in to buy some beverages. That’s when she disappears — for good. Though it seems clear that she wouldn’t have ditched her husband, there’s an underlying suggestion that Saskia has been dissatisfied with the relationship, and that Rex is going out of his way to please her. Like a lot of first-rate psychological thrillers, The Vanishing plays off eerily common domestic entanglements, little ripples of unease that unsettle us by their very familiarity.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because the heady, demonic-puzzle design of this movie depends on our scrutinizing its situations with a minimum of knowledge. The Vanishing is a nightmare that comes washing over the audience in systematic, clinical layers. There’s a third major character: Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a French chemistry teacher and family man who turns out to be very dark indeed. Early on, it’s revealed that he is connected to Saskia’s disappearance. But that fact alone is less arresting than the way the film suddenly shifts gears and moves into Raymond’s life, exposing the devious and peculiarly rational madman beneath the cultivated bourgeois. This is the sort of character Alfred Hitchcock relished, and The Vanishing — like some of Claude Chabrol’s thrillers from the ’60s — is an art-house Hitchcock film. We know we’re watching a cinematic game, but it’s all so disarmingly low-key that we can’t simply dismiss it as a roller-coaster fantasy.
There’s one unconvincing element: The movie hinges on Rex’s obsession with finding out what happened to Saskia. For years, the quest consumes his life 24 hours a day. Yet this feels slightly hokey. Considering how eager the movie is to plumb the perversities of human nature, it’s far too willing to present Rex as a righteous, benevolent romantic. (If he weren’t, of course, the plot would have no motor.) Nevertheless, his eventual encounter with Raymond is wonderfully sinister, leading to a climax that’s a bona fide mind-blower. It’s enough to make you think twice about the rewards of virtue.