I saw this first in the theater when it was out, and it completely blew my mind. This is a movie with a big shocker ending, and I had never seen anything like it. Then the same director made an American version, which everyone knew would have to change the ending--which is kind of this thing's whole reason for being--and it went beyond "predictably awful" to massively wrongheaded and hideous. I re-watched it before watching this one again, and if you like, you can read the review. I'll be doing a lot of comparison throughout.
So we have this Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, on vacation in France. They are laughing and joking, and we can tell that they love each other. This is in contrast to the remake, in which they're bickering from the get-go and really seem to hate each other. Saskia has had a recurring dream again, that she is trapped in a golden egg, floating through space. Only this time, Rex is trapped in a separate egg, near her but not touching. By the way, the name of the novel this is adapted from is The Golden Egg. Saskia warns that they're low on gas, then they end up running out right in the middle of a long mountain tunnel. Rex leaves her to get gas while she searches for a flashlight, which causes her to panic. We have a shot of him smiling as she calls for him in terror. When he returns, she's not at the car--and we in the audience have to wonder if THIS is the vanishing we're expecting? Rex gets in the car and drives to the end, where there is a great shot of Saskia standing in the brilliant sunshine at the end. She is upset, but Rex says "In the tunnel, when you called for me [as he was walking away and leaving her], I felt that I loved you more than ever."
We now meet a man, Raymond, who is our psycho. We see him fixing up his rural cottage, and chloroforming himself to time how long he will be out. We see him practicing inviting women into his car, and timing his pulse to train himself to relax as he does so. Gradually we realize that he is very methodically planning to abduct someone. We have a scene in which he sadistically scares his daughter with a drawer full of spiders, then invites the whole family to see how loud they can scream. The gusto with which they go along makes this entire family seem a tiny touch off-kilter. Raymond later checks out whether the neighbor could hear the screams.
Back with Rex and Saskia, they stop at a gas station. We see that they have made up, and spend a nice afternoon lazing in the grass (of the GAS STATION) and she makes him promise never to abandon her. She goes in... and comes out again, and they laze about some more. Then goes a long way to show us their connection, and was largely truncated to the point of completely not working in the remake. Saskia goes back in... and never comes out. Rex looks around for her with increasing desperation, then--THREE YEARS LATER!
Rex has a new girlfriend, who rides around with him to check on posters he has put up, still searching for Saskia after all this time. Raymond sees the posters, and admires Rex's perseverance. Rex's new girlfriend is getting fed up with his obsession, and urges him to accept that Saskia is dead. Rex gets a note from Raymond saying to meet him in a town square. Rex shows, and we can see Raymond at various places in the background, watching him. Rex just can't let it go, and eventually his new girlfriend walks out on him, in the most amicable way possible. Rex goes on television and says that he wants to meet the abductor, not to punish him, but just because he has to know what happened. One day, Raymond introduces himself to Rex, says he's the man he's looking for, and if Rex comes with him, he will find out everything. Rex gets in the car.
SPOILERS > > >
They drive into France, and Raymond starts talking. He says that as a child he stood on a balcony. He says everyone has the impulse to jump, but he actually did it, to show that it is not predestined that he WON'T jump. Later, he saved a girl from drowning, and his daughter called him a hero. He thought he cannot be a hero unless he can prove himself incapable of evil, so he immediately tried to think of the worst thing he could do, to test it. It becomes clear that the fact that he would be killing another person never really registers with him, it's all just part of this little mental project he has. He tells Rex that for him, killing is not the worst thing he can imagine.
He tells Rex of how he prepared for the abduction, and his numerous trials and errors. He eventually meets Saskia, and we can see that she charms him, and he is excited by the fact that he will be taking someone that has a boyfriend who cares for her very much. He has said earlier that he eschewed abducting prostitutes, because no one cares about them. They arrive at the gas station where Saskia was abducted. Raymond takes out a thermos, tells Rex it contains drugged coffee, and at this point Rex has to drink, and he will experience exactly what Saskia experienced, and thus find out what happened to her.
Now here's where we talk about the ending, and if you haven't seen it, you are strongly advised to skip out of the spoilers now, because it is very much worth preserving your innocence in this case. Rex drinks, using Raymond logic, that "who's to say it is predetermined that he won't drink?" It fades out. When we return, Rex is inside a coffin, buried alive. The first time I saw this movie, I was sitting there like "Okay, now he's going to get out and escape," but then... he doesn't. He dies in there, and the scheme reveals itself as a bit of an ingeniously sick joke, as he DID in fact find out what happened to her, as promised. We also surmise that the yellowish wood of the coffin is the golden egg that Saskia dreamed about, and you'll recall that she dreamt they were both in golden eggs, beside each other but not touching. This point is reinforced by a last shot of a newspaper reporting Rex's disappearance, with his and Saskia's pictures in ovals, side by side. The film masks out all but the ovals, and we see them there, both in little eggs.
So before we leave the spoilers, I should tell you that this is the ending that the American remake didn't have the guts to follow through on, and in that one the Rex character is dug up (after like 20 minutes with no oxygen) and is fine. The psycho is killed, and Rex achieves emotional catharsis and can now commit to his new girlfriend. The remake has bumped up the role of his new girlfriend massively, making the primary content of the film all about their relationship, and Rex's character's need to accept and move on. If you love this version, you're just sitting there in the remake like "What IS this?" but in a weird way, I came to respect it a tiny bit. They knew from the start that they would never be able to float that ending in America, so they tried to find something else to replace it, and came up with a very American take about the importance of love and personal journeys of emotional catharsis. It's a dismal failure, but they did think about it. A tiny bit.
< < < SPOILERS END
Some things that the remake makes us think about is how, for whatever reason, the kinds of obsession portrayed here make much more sense in a European context than an American one. It's difficult to put a finger on exactly why, but a man becoming obsessed with this long-term intellectual project, which involves killing someone as part of a grand philosophical scheme of which the murder itself is only a milestone on the journey, flies in France, but doesn't quite work in the United States. US intellectual violence ends up resulting in people like Timothy McVeigh or the Unibomber, who grow in isolation but end up making big, society-wide statements, whereas coming out of Europe are stories of ideological obsession that remain small and personal, such as the guy who paid someone to eat him, or the guy who kept the girl hostage and fathered several children on her. So the Raymond character just doesn't quite fly in the American version. Similarly, as the comparison between L'Appartement and Wicker Park shows us, European relationships include much more room for casual obsessions that verge on stalking, making the thorny relationship between Rex and Saskia make sense in a way where their connection is palpable, whereas in the American remake it just seems like they hate each other from the start, have only the most superficial relationship, and we spend the rest of the movie unsure of where his obsession with finding her is coming from. Not to mention that a deep, dark dive into the twisted aspects of sociopathology is just not something Americans are perceived as being interested in, resulting in the remake we got, which is focused on relationships in the Oprah sense, and achieving emotional catharsis.
So what you get here is a movie about how for one person, an intellectual project can become divorced from basic, day-to-day morality, and for another a weird sadistic aspect of relationships (Rex's line that he never loved Saskia as much as when she was calling for him as he abandoned her) can become energized in a way that psychoanalysts would call a reaction-formation: he deals with his own sadism toward Saskia by overcompensating with this obsession to remain devoted to her memory. Then our two highly-damaged protagonists interlock in a way that is fascinating for viewers, and resolves into the brilliantly dark joke of the ending.
So yeah, if you like down, dark and dirty movies about human intellectual pathology gone mad, and you've never seen this, you have a great movie experience coming up. Only the masochistic and weirdly obsessed need to bother with the American remake.
Yes! It's a brilliantly chilling dive into sociopathology.
THE VANISHING (1988) is the American remake, by the same writer and director, and should only appeal to the masochistic.