Thursday, September 4, 2008

the vanishing (spoorloos), by george sluizer

So, this week, Film Club continued our investigation into cinematic sociopaths by looking at George Sluizer's The Vanishing (the 1998 original).

The setup of The Vanishing is relatively simple: a Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, are on a roadtrip together...

They stop at a roadside service plaza and Saskia goes in for a Coke and a beer while Rex waits outside. Rex, waits, and waits, and waits... but Saskia never returns to the car.

Like Psycho, then, The Vanishing uses a woman's disappearance as an early turning point in its narrative, and it spends the later part of its narrative following the lover of that woman as he searches for her. Both films also spend large chunks of narrative time following the psychotic or sociopathic individual to blame for the woman's disappearance.

Unlike Psycho, however, which spends its time following Norman Bates in the aftermath of his murders, The Vanishing's narrative attention goes to the sociopathic individual, Raymond Lemorne, in advance of his act: we see a number of flashbacks which show him planning out the abduction, working out key details, revising and re-revising elements of it. Here, for instance, we see him rehearsing exactly how he might chloroform someone:

This is interesting because it presents an alternate view of the psychology of sociopathy. In Psycho, Norman Bates' psychology is driven completely by emotion and impulse— grief, jealousy, arousal, rage— emotions which clash inchoately until they find form in violent outburst. Raymond functions as the exact opposite: his actions are methodical, pre-meditated, and even (we learn) in line with an internal philosophy and morality which retains integrity even as it leads him to do evil things.

Watching a character work out a plan like this tends to generate a desire to see the plan play out, although we never quite identify with Raymond the way we did (momentarily, horrifyingly) with Norman (discussed in full last week). Part of the reason for this is that this film, unlike Psycho, has the investigating male, Rex, serve as a stable protagonist throughout the entire run-time. So the (potentially troubling) desire to see Raymond's plan come to fruition is neatly folded into Rex's more socially-acceptable desire to learn exactly what happened to Saskia.

This keeps us in a "safer" space, psychologically-speaking: having Rex as the point of audience identification allows us to maintain a comfortable distance from Raymond. However, Sluizer is a canny enough director to exploit this "safe" identification to great effect. Late in the proceedings, the narrative presents Rex (and, by extension, us) with something of a diabolical choice. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the film, but suffice it to say that Rex is given the opportunity to learn what really transpired, although taking advantage of this opportunity will put him in the path of real danger; in fact, even at the outset of the decision it is almost certain that he will be killed, or possibly something worse (earlier on, Raymond casually makes mention that he doesn't consider killing someone to be the worst thing you can do to them).

Rex wants the knowledge of Saskia's fate, however horrible. He wants it badly enough that he's willing to risk self-annihilation. And in effect, we are presented with the exact same bargain: do we want to know what happened, enough to be willing to risk our protagonist / self-analogue? Even though we know it will be horrible? Only the most sensitive viewer could decline such a bargain. But why? What do we gain from taking in disturbing knowledge? Why would the film feel so emotionally disappointing were Rex to decide he had learned enough, and to walk away at the last second? In these final scenes, The Vanishing looks nakedly at the core offer that is at the root of horror / shock films from Psycho to Hostel II: I have something terrible to show you. Do you want to see it?

Next week: more sociopathic abduction narratives: we'll be watching Skunkcabbage's pick, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962).

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