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PAUSE: An Return to George Sluizer's 'The Vanishing' (1988)

by Dani Buckley 2 years ago in movie review
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Dutch film 'Spoorloos' which translates to mean 'traceless' or 'without a trace' has obtained a reputation among cult strains of cinema fans. And this is not without good reason. 'Spoorloos' is a chilling, understated but masterfully-crafted tale of one woman's disappearance that has unsettling consequences. This article reflects on this sinister film and observes its triumphs in manifesting a truly eerie tale of people's ephemeral nature and the bizarre wants of the most unsuspecting individuals. Be warned, spoilers ahead.

Missing: Saskia's pictures are plastered all over Paris by her grieving boyfriend.

'Spoorloos' opens with a young Dutch couple driving to Paris for a holiday. While passing through the tunnel, the car stops and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) voices a dream she has. She describes how she envisioned two golden eggs colliding in a bizarre twist of fate. The whole scene containing Saskia's monologue is dripping with tension and a goosebump-inducing air of foreshadowing. The couple drive on.

Enveloped in sunlight, the two arrive at a petrol station to fill up before the final leg of their journey. The scene is chipper and the couple are in high spirits, professing their love for one another as they sit for a moment on the grass. It's a moment full of wistful promise and utter dedication, and one that makes the following events even more painful to witness.

Saskia departs for the shop to pick up some snacks and possibly a keepsake. Meanwhile, Rex (Gene Berroets) fills up the car. He waits for Saskia to return, but it soon becomes apparent that she's been gone unusually long. After disappearing into the convenience store, Saskia seems to have, quite literally, vanished. Rex races around the area calling out for her and begging people to look at the photo of her in his wallet to see if they have seen her, or might have spotted her heading somewhere. His efforts are fruitless.

Rex and Saskia take a happy moment to look forward to their holiday. | Picture credit: MoriaReviews.com.

'Spoorloos' then makes a swift jump to three years later. Saskia has not been found, and despite friends gently telling Rex to give up hope, he continues diligently to search for his lost girlfriend. Never having had closure, Rex seems to have settled in Paris, and has made several television interviews detailing Saskia's disappearance.

Unlike many films containing murder plots, 'Spoorloos' wastes little time in introducing its audience to the culprit. After lingering a little on Rex devolving further in his obsession to find out what happened to Saskia, the film cuts to a red-haired man at his secluded family home in the woods. We are informed his name is Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), and while he appears, on the surface, as a wealthy family-oriented man, his shifty behaviour betrays a man eager to execute his own insidious plot.

Indeed, despite the inference of its title, places almost everything in plain sight. But there remains a sinister edge which persists until the film's final moments. Always, both we and Rex are taunted - not with an archetypal whodunnit mystery, but with where exactly Saskia is and what Raymond did to her. And the whole thing is prefaced with Saskia's eerie premonition of the two golden spheres colliding, hinting that, deep down, she knew something was going to happen to her.

Raymond, with his stocky build and light red hair and beard, and large glasses, has this evasive nature reminiscent of many renowned killers, switching in a single facial tick from pleasant to unhinged. Outwardly harmless and kind-natured, there is something a little off about Raymond, as though one can physically see the cogs whirring in his mind as he works out his plan. But this isn't enough to render him a threat. We see him plot and scheme a way to get a girl into his car. He tries and fails on many occasions, unable to lure women off the street into his vehicle to knock them unconscious. Finally, he masters it, feigning a broken arm in a cast to demonstrate he needs assistance. Saskia, with a good heart and eager to get something for Rex, falls headfirst for Raymond's visibly benign ploy to get her in the car by stating he has souvenirs. Saskia, wanting to get something for Rex to commemorate the trip, hesitates before hopping in the car. When it dawns on her that Raymond was lying as there are no souvenirs to be found, it is too late. Raymond clamps a chloroformed cloth over her mouth.

When Raymond outs himself as Saskia's killer to Rex in the second half of the film and relays this information to him, the emotional pull of both Rex's utter desperation and Saskia's sweet nature being exploited is enough to make you plea with the movie that, this time around, Saskia won't disappear. She'll kick, fight back, scramble out of the car. Always, Raymond has the upper hand.

What makes Saskia's disappearance even more frustrating for both the viewer and Rex is Raymond's reasoning for doing so. Unlike your average Ted Bundy, Raymond possesses no sexual appetite or urge to kill. We learn through a flashback and some narration by Raymond that the idea to kidnap and murder an innocent was the result of a family trip, in which he saved a girl from drowning in the river. If life is so easy to restore, how easy would it be to take away? This is Raymond's thought process. Thus, he lays the trap at the petrol station, which the unknowing Saskia unwittingly stumbles into.

'Spoorloos' is able to build nerve-bending tension in the scenes involving Raymond prowling around the petrol station, almost bottling it and scurrying off to his car, before closing in on Saskia in the last second. The flashback scenes always provide the burning itch of hope spurred by the exposition of seeing Rex stewing in Paris, with no form of closure to this agonising loss; that somehow, Saskia will turn out to be alright somewhere. But the bleak overtone of the movie, blended with Raymond's sinisterly nonchalant attitude to murder, moves one to despair.

Then, there is the distinct layer of foreboding that coats the film in a thick layer throughout. We are waiting to find out what exactly happened to Saskia after Raymond abducted her, but are unsure if we want to know the grizzly truth. Raymond's elusiveness and Rex's pressing curiosity are enough to make you perch on the edge of your seat with a morbid longing to know what happened.

The pacing of this movie is masterful and serves as an inescapable rod hooking you to the picture. Its more nuanced take on the typical murder mystery formula also makes it unique. It ditches the classic endeavours to mask the identity of the killer until the final second. Instead, its real mystery is the mode of death by which Saskia met her tragic fate. In this sense it is far more somber and bleak than your usual crime detective tale. There is no chance, no stolen hint of a happy ending in sight.

The anticipation is almost unbearable when the film reaches its final fifteen minutes of run time, as Raymond tantalizes Rex with the seemingly unreachable truth about Saskia's current whereabouts. Rex, at the end of his tether with Raymond's evasive behaviour, blurts out that, if he won't tell Rex what happened, he should show him. The viewer's breath hitches when we see Raymond's eyes light up like a cat's in the darkness of the rain-soaked parking lot he has brought them to. A painful pang goes out to Rex, who, being so desperate to receive closure in this three year stint of obsessive wondering, throws caution to the wind. The fear then rises. The camera focuses on Raymond's sly movements, making us fear the very worst for our broken and exhausted protagonist.

Raymond tantalizes Rex with the truth. | Picture credit: IMDB.

The film's final scene is one I won't spoil for you if you haven't yet seen it. It consists of one of my greatest fears, and an ending I wholly did not expect. The sudden transition, realisation and implications emerging from the scene are chilling. The image is powerful, and one to stay with you for a long time after watching. The gravitas of just how horrific the fate presented at the end of the movie is made all the more bitter and disturbing when one realises it was all for the sake of one man's stupid philosophical test to see if he could rid the world of a life as easily as he saved one.

Raymond is one of those insufferable characters true of the real world that are moved to commit the unspeakable, simply because their privileged lifestyle has made them bored and filled them with the obnoxious confidence that anything they do can be washed of responsibility. He is fickle, with the epiphany of a single event inspiring a rash desire to take a life simply because he his instilled with the self-asserting knowledge that society allows him to possess the authority and power to do so. Men like Raymond, quite literally, get away with murder.

This boring, seemingly unthreatening bourgeois family man with a Nietzsche complex makes for a blood-boiling yet helplessly intriguing villain in this painfully real story. His narcissism and eagerness to test his own moral boundaries is enough reason to rid Saskia and Rex of their happiness without consequence. The sheer joy of Saskia and Rex on the grass, about to embark on their romantic holiday, lingers in an aching sting throughout the film's duration. It is a masterful yet harrowingly sad tale that is laced with eerie undertones and an earth-shattering conclusion that is designed to catch you off guard.

'Spoorloos' may not appear to be much from its opening scenes, but persevere with it and you will be thrilled by its watchful, methodic direction, immersive performances and unnerving implications. 'Spoorloos', in all its well-paced and understated glory, has come to instill a deep and memorable fear within me, so much so that my shoulders cringe when my mind returns to the movie's final scenes. Saskia's dream, Raymond's nonchalance, Rex's desperation and the remarkable climax all converge to catapult the film to an almost incorporeal level of fear. Can someone know their fate is sealed before it happens? Can the life of a creature really be seen as so ephemeral and worthless?

Like a seed, 'Spoorloos' plants itself in your mind with roots that simply cannot be cut. You'll find yourself turning over the twin fates of Saskia and Rex for a long time.

movie review

About the author

Dani Buckley

My life revolves around horror and film.

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