For whatever reason – I don't sleep much as it is – I have always been plagued by the most vivid nightmares. I know this because I happen to remember most of the horror in those first magical moments of wakefulness when we straddle two realms and our imagination is not hemmed by logic's straight black stitch. Sometimes, in a weak moment of conformity, I have attempted to describe in writing what was seen and experienced; and yet time and again the hypnopompic mark crumbles when committed to paper. It has taken me a while to realize that our nightmares are reflected in what fragments remain from those visions, as well as in the startling daily reminders of what we thought were memories. And one of the most believable nightmares ever told is the subject of this remarkable film.
You will know the premise: a young Dutch couple still struggling with the reality of their growing love travels southbound to a beach's distant bliss. Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) seems the more confident of their relationship, perhaps because she could be considered more attractive and insouciant than the rather uptight Rex (Gene Bervoets). Soon, however, a spat ensues – like most spats, over absolutely nothing that could invalidate the relationship's strength – and Saskia reveals that last night she again had her recurring nightmare. It is an unusual fear, one that would be termed claustrophobia by the casual observer, but we will not belittle it so, even if another character later on will claim the same illness. Saskia's nightmare involves being trapped in a "golden egg" (the title of the original Dutch novel) hurtling through outer space with neither escape nor a sense of where, if anywhere, she might be headed. In this nightmare's last manifestation, she becomes conscious of a second egg, with presumably someone else trapped within. "And I knew somehow that if these two ever collided, it would all be over," she tells Rex with all the conviction one may reasonably attach to such a vision. Rex will not take her very seriously, which leads to our first red herring. There is also a lovely moment when the two golden eggs just mentioned flash before us in the form of a giant truck's headlights in a tunnel where the lovers seem to have run out of petrol. Rex abandons the car and a wailing Saskia to hoof it with his gas tank. When he returns, she is gone; but a part of him knows that she probably just scampered off to the end of the tunnel with her flashlight. As he finds her there in a bright, iconic shot that will be repeated towards the close of our story, we all become strangely relieved: we already believe in this couple. And we may believe in them even more because we know that the end is hideously near.
That end, of course, is simply the beginning of a much longer and more wicked nightmare. It is July of 1984 and we are in the idyll of a vacationing France. Our narrative pulse, so to speak, will be what usually happens in France in July, namely the most famous cycling competition in the world. The Tour has another function apart from dating our work, and that function has to do with an enigmatic French professor of chemistry, Raymond Lemorne (the late Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), one of the most magnificent creations of literature or film. The Donegaled Lemorne is so magnificent, in fact, that one suspects Krabbé might have personally known a middle-class family man of extraordinary intelligence just like Lemorne and imagined for him a sinister secondary existence. We first see Lemorne as he fits a fake cast onto his right forearm and hangs out in front of a highway gas station scanning for – well, we don't quite know yet, although it is clear that a plot of some sort is afoot. As our story progresses, Lemorne assumes a number of beveled facets. At the not-so-tender age of sixteen he determined that he was a man of action (a rather stupid explanation for this epiphany is provided, although its location is far more interesting than its outcome), which allows him to rescue a drowning girl in front of his admiring daughters and generally kowtowing wife ("Never trust a hero," he warns. "A hero is capable of rash gestures"). Whether measuring the effects of chloroform, practicing his accosting monologues in three languages, or slinking around his car after luring a victim inside, Donnadieu is a revelation. "Perhaps you can help me," he reads off his English flash cards in his thick, ridiculous accent and bifocals (much like how this famous French playwright allegedly learned the language), his fat finger pointed at an imaginary target of his planned abduction.
An abduction? Yes, you see, when Saskia enters a gas station on a French highway and never reappears, we do not slip seamlessly into a police procedural or even a psychological study of poor Rex. Instead, our thoughts and eyes are transposed to a thoroughly bourgeois family of four and their little games, mostly because Lemorne is clearly our killer and Saskia is clearly the meaningless victim of a deranged man's war with his own rapidly deteriorating psyche. What Lemorne proposes as a motivation for his crimes is a direct progeny of the banal Superman nonsense spawned more than a century ago, and needs no further belaboring. But the theories that justify evil are always the vague, hollow mottoes of the sophist. So when three years have passed and a completely obsessed Rex, with a new girlfriend in name only, begins once again to plea with the general public for help in locating Saskia, the whole business catches Lemorne's eye. We learn Rex, Saskia, and Lemorne's full names and addresses; we even learn Lemorne's birthday, which just so happens also to be the director's. We observe real people, not unattractive but pleasant to behold, well-spoken, and party to secrets that may destroy them, and in these obsessive souls we recognize the bitter flavor of utter plausibility. When Lemorne looks distracted as he picks up his younger daughter from the train station, she asks him whether he has a mistress ("You're allowed to, at your age, daddy"). And when he refuses a harmless offer for coffee with his daughters' former volleyball coach who has just caught him nervously loitering in front of his car, she is just as blunt but not quite as gentle ("Mr. Lemorne, you can go to any gas station. There you will find hundreds of foreign women and no one will recognize you"). Lemorne, of course, takes her up on her advice, but not for the reasons she insinuates.
Much is made of the evil genius because evil without genius is the bestial thuggery of the Mafia goon. But rarely if ever do we encounter malevolence of this caliber extending its roots into the earth and feeding off the nutrients in its immediate environment. The ingenuity of The Vanishing resides not only in its wholly unconventional unraveling of the truth, but also in the truth itself. We are not given hints at what happened that fateful July day until some eleventh-hour tying of every loose thread imaginable, we are inundated with every angle of the truth. Lemorne may be the first self-proclaimed sociopath on screen who is neither overly excitable nor overly calm in his emotions: he goes through the highs and lows of a normal person, but close inspection reveals that he is completely insane. His plan, which fails gloriously and repeatedly, is so unnecessarily risky and yet so "untraceable" (the Dutch name for the film literally means "without a trace") if carried out well, that we understand we are dealing with someone who has never once cared for societal standards or consequences. He has made his own pact with his will and is determined to see it to the end. His methods recall the Tour itself: standing by a rushing mass, hoping to glimpse a single specimen. In searching for Saskia minutes after her disappearance Rex, who has very good French, even mistakenly says that Saskia is in a jersey not a blouse, and is corrected by the French cashier who alludes, quite naturally, to the Tour and the maillot jaune. And the two bicycles stolen from Rex's car rack as he looks for Saskia? Both of them gone, I fear, without the slightest trace.