Synopsis: A young man begins an obsessive search for his girlfriend after she mysteriously disappears during their sunny vacation getaway. The Vanishing unfolds with intense precision, culminating in a genuinely chilling finale that has unnerved audiences around the world.
eyelights: Saskia. Rex. Raymond. the performances. the psychological twists and turns. the punchline.
eyesores: the poor special effects in the final shot.
‘Spoorloos’ is a tale of obsession. It’s about a man’s search for a loved one, missing under mysterious circumstances, and the man who may know what’s happened. It is based on Tim Krabbé’s ‘The Golden Egg’.
It is one of my all-time favourite motion pictures. It’s likely in the top 5, in fact.
I first saw it in the mid-’90s at the local art-house cinema, during a period in which I started to explore outside the confines of North America standards; there was more to motion pictures than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, apparently. That cinema had great prices and frequently double-billed films, so it made each gamble worth it.
I was immediately captivated and eventually bowled over by ‘Spoorloos’.
It starts off simply, with no hint of what was to come: ‘Spoorloos’ shows us a couple driving up to a cottage for their holidays. Their banter is casual, pleasant, and entirely naturalistic for two intimates on a long trek. The film captures an unassuming moment in time, a fragment of one’s memory that is often a blur in such travels.
And then they run out of gas. Life will change irrevocably for both of them.
This may sound like a veritable cliché, except that it’s not played up in the way that such a scenario would be in your average film. ‘Spoorloos’ simply is not your average film. In this case, what it does differently and efficiently is to use this element to express human vulnerability and establish our characters’ personalities.
But ‘Spoorloos’ depends on a veil of mystery to have full impact, so I will say little else. In the same way that Alfred Hitchcock refused to let people into ‘Psycho‘ after it had commenced and requested that audiences refrain from divulging its twists to their friends so that they too may get the most out of the experience, ‘Spoorloos’ demands much secrecy.
Going into ‘Spoorloos’ cold is crucial the first time around to get its full impact, but it’s not merely a one-trick pony.
You see, like any great motion picture, one can easily get more than one viewing out of it; it doesn’t just depend on its surprises to fuel it and feed the audience. As with ‘Memento‘, it can be watched many times over: its construction is original and the characters are fascinating from behavioral and psychological standpoint, providing us with much to dissect each time.
Even though one knows the outcome of ‘Spoorloos’, observing Rex obsess through the years, trying to figure out what’s happened, devoting his time, money and jeopardizing his relationships just to lift the veil on that fateful day, is something to behold. This guy is no longer angry, and he doesn’t want vengeance: he just needs to know, needs to satisfy his curiosity, no matter what the answer may be.
The problem is that this incessant focus on finding answers has taken a toll on his sanity: he is tense, wired, to the extent that he sometimes has terrible nightmares and is completely disconnected from his own life. For all intents and purposes, Rex’s life ended years ago: he is living and reliving a moment in time that he can’t seem to escape – which indubitably makes him a fascinating subject.
Meanwhile, there’s a counterpart to his obsession, and it is in the form of Raymond, a man who seems to be connected to the mystery somehow. A devoted family man, and a high school science teacher, he appears at first glance to be a very average person, particularly flavourless, bland, methodical, emotionally-leveled. One wouldn’t think much of him, aside for his huge, discrepant goatee.
Except that we soon see that there is more to him beneath the surface: he has his own obsession, and we’re not quite sure what it’s about at first. However, we soon come to realize that it may have something to do with Rex. In fact, he eventually becomes intrigued with Rex, toying with him, teasing him, anonymously sending him notes and planning rendez-vous that he doesn’t keep.
What does he want, one wonders? Why is he doing what he’s doing?
What is especially engrossing is seeing how both of these characters are intently focused on their own specific goal and end up converging in the most unusual of ways. Both are troubled individuals who will go to extreme lengths just to get the answers to their respective questions – to lengths that the average human being would never consider and would likely be horrified with. But they just have to know. They must.
Thankfully, the actors are all up to the task of conveying the intricacies of their characters. Gene Bervoets couldn’t possibly be any better at channeling the emotional distance and intensity of Rex. I would love to see some of his other work, to see how versatile he is, but I’m afraid that he will always be Rex to me. Meanwhile, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu is equally perfect as the robot-like Raymond, subtly stirring a feeling of discomfort in us.
And then there’s Johanna ter Steege, who plays Saskia. Oh, we haven’t spoken of Saskia, have we? We won’t. All I can say is that ter Steeg made of Saskia someone entirely genuine, someone we might meet everywhere: she is filled with joy, fears, hope, doubts, curiosity, tenderness. Plus she has spunk. There is a richness there that is amazing given the amount of screen time that she has. It’s a small, but central part: she gives the film an emotional core.
‘Spoorloos’ is a motion picture filled with psychological tension, if not terror. It’s not a visceral film, stocked with violent actions and artificial scares; it’s an atmospheric thriller that is slowly deployed, like a venus flytrap that waits for the perfect moment to close on its prey. It taps into our everyday fears and makes them a reality, showing exactly how and why there may be a genuine cause for concern.
It also poses the question of how far we, the audience, would go to achieve our ends in similar circumstances. It puts us in the skin of the key characters, makes us understand them and even empathize with them, even as we are devastated by the choices that they make. It shows us the best and worst of human nature at once, transforming integrity and honor into insanity and horror.
‘Spoorloos’ is a masterpiece.
Nota bene: In 1993 the film was Americanized under the title of ‘The Vanishing’, featuring Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges in the leads. Despite the casting and the fact that it was remade by the director of ‘Spoorloos’, it is an abject failure and should be avoided at all costs. It is only useful as a comparison point, to highlight what one shouldn’t do with an adaptation.
Date of viewing: April 21, 2013