'Vanishing' triumphs as a wonderfully evil film

March 05, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

For some years now, young American directors have been remaking Hitchcock badly, and wearing their failures as a badge of honor. Phil Joanou's "Final Analysis" is only the most recent travesty.

Of course, they fail because they don't get it. What made Alfred Hitchcock great wasn't the fancy camera work or the tricky plots, but the subtle way he found of expressing insidious emotional states, of icily building dislocating ideas atop each other until he had constructed a grand edifice of suspense and perversity that was at once mesmerizing and unsettling.

Now, at last, a director has come close to pulling this oh-so-very difficult trick off.

The Frenchman George Sluizer has made "The Vanishing," from a screenplay and novel by Tim Krabbe. (It opens at the Charles today). And what a clammy, cold, dispiriting and commanding piece of work it is! Enter at your own risk and emerge a brisk 90 minutes later both illuminated and ravaged.

It's less a cat and mouse game than a cat and cat game: two hunters, obsessed with each other, circling each other and getting closer and closer to the claustrophobic intensity of the ultimate moment. And, like so many tales of great evil, it begins on a note of perfect domestic banality, with a young couple on vacation.

One fine summer day in the south of France, Rex (Gene Bervoets), a handsome, somewhat callow, Dutch yuppie watches as his girlfriend Saskia (Johanna-ter Steege) goes into a gas station restroom and then. . .the lady vanishes. She's simply not there. Distraught, Rex begins a frantic but fruitless search.

Sluizer then switches his focus to Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a plump little man who will eventually reveal himself as that most troubling of characters, the monster with the human face. We learn, quickly, that he's a suburban man with a modest summer house, two doting daughters and a decent, if somewhat harried, wife.

His descent into evil is, like Raskolnikov's or, possibly, Joseph Mengele's, intellectual. One day on a romp in the country, he and his family come across a drowning child. Quickly and heroically, Raymond saves her life. But it preys on the slight twitch in his personality and grows to be an obsession: Has his impulsive heroism somehow altered the laws of the universe? And now that he's saved a life, does he have the right to take one? Does he dare force himself beyond the moral threshold?

Slowly and carefully, he begins to plot a crime that will express these themes. It's not a crime of passion but more a triumph of ratiocination -- crime as performance art, or drama, if you will, for an audience of the self, almost as coldblooded as a master's thesis.

Donnadieu is a stumpy, intent little actor, not remotely theatrical or self-dramatizing -- he's about as far from Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Hannibal Lecter as you could get -- and that is what gives the performance its clammy precision. He's nuts, of course, but nuts in the banal way of a petty bureaucrat or bitter English teacher with a zealous commitment to diagramming sentences.

"The Vanishing" then audaciously jumps through time and reconvenes three years later.

Now Rex has given himself totally to the mystery. He has borrowed money to finance a media campaign and has papered France with posters in search of his vanished lover. The depth of his obsession has elevated him, almost, to Raymond's level of madness, and now the abductor senses a kindred spirit, a brother in madness.

Slowly and evenly, he begins to stalk the man who is stalking him, knowing that he cannot begin to overpower the younger, stronger man, but that he has one extraordinary source of leverage: he knows the answer to the vanishing.

The movie has a curiously unhappy/happy ending. If you want justice, consult the works of Charles Bronson or Steven Seagal: "The Vanishing" is about the power of the mind to propel its subjects along unbelievable trajectories, into risks beyond knowing, in a quest for the most disturbing of knowledge.

One of these men will kill to learn, and another will die to learn: the terrible weight of "The Vanishing" is that even in its coldest moments, you understand that these two were made for each other. They are the odd couple of sociopathy.

"The Vanishing" also shows how much movie can be made from how little. A good cast, a couple of cars and houses, a great script, and that's all. It's a lesson Hollywood has long forgotten, if it ever knew.

'The Vanishing'

Starring Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu and Gene Bervoets.

Directed by George Sluizer.

Released by Tara Releasing.

English subtitles.

Unrated.

*** 1/2

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