Monday, August 11, 2014

Spoorloos: Terrible Knowledge

Something I've come back to every now and again over the course of this thing is the idea of “terrible knowledge,” usually to describe that moment when either the protagonists of a film or the audience put all the pieces together and realizes something frightening or upsetting or disturbing that until that moment was hidden or obscured. Sometimes I call it “the horror of discovery”, but it’s the same idea, the “oh shit” moment when the full implications of a films’ worth of little details and asides and clues converge into a single conclusion. It’s usually a twist ending, a sudden reversal of something we took for granted (what do you mean that guy was only a figment of his imagination?) but sometimes the inevitable, obvious conclusion can carry just as much dread along with it.

Spoorloos (The Vanishing) isn't...exactly about the journey more than the end, but the way it builds to its conclusion by playing on the characters’ (and our own) need to know is masterful.

Rex and Saskia are taking a vacation, taking a long trip in the car from Amsterdam to a small house in the French countryside. There’s some light banter, but some of it is oddly strained. Rex doesn't want Saskia to drive for some reason, even though he’s getting tired. Saskia’s talking to Rex about a recurring dream she has, of being trapped in a golden egg and feeling utterly alone. They run out of gas, and Rex goes to get more, leaving Saskia to get increasingly upset at being left alone. She seems to be terrified of being abandoned, and Rex seems to resent it a little. We don’t know why they have this dynamic, but there it is. Meanwhile, elsewhere, another man - Raymond - packs for his own little trip. He has a sling, a fake cast, a rag, and a small medicinal bottle. It’s not immediately clear where he’s going or what he plans to do, but it doesn't look good, either.

Saskia and Rex come to a rest stop. He apologizes to her, they make up, enjoy some time stretching their legs before they get back on the road. Saskia offers to grab beverages for the two of them and heads into the rest stop, walking right past Raymond, who waits outside with a paper.

Saskia never comes back.

The rest of the film bounces around in time and perspective. Saskia disappears, Rex spends the rest of the day searching for her. Then we’re with Raymond, months before the disappearance. We watch his life, his plans, his little exercises and notes as he prepares for a single day. Then it’s three years later, and Rex hasn't forgotten Saskia. In fact, it’s hard for him to think about anything else. Over the course of the film, these two men orbit each other, Saskia’s absence the nucleus holding them both. Like Raymond, the film is careful and meticulous - everything matters, almost every little detail means something if you pay close attention. It's not gratuitous or some kind of blatant puzzle exercise either, where we can “solve” the movie. It’s really not too difficult to figure out in broad strokes what happened. It’s not a Chekhov's Gun situation where everything exists only to drive the plot, it's more of a case of a singular event emerging from all of the little intersections of fate and chance. This happened because these people were in this place at this time, and this went the way it did, and that went the way it did, and this is the end result. We go through most of the movie before we get a complete picture of the events of that day, with only Rex’s maddeningly incomplete account to go by for most of it. 

But that’s good, that sense of the unknown, of absence, of unanswered questions. Spoorloos is about as far from sensationalistic as you can get, but all the creepier for it. Raymond is careful and methodical, and it's chilling to see how neatly he conducts his life in the face of what it is he plans to do (and then has done). Everything in his life plays a role, everything is a moment for rehearsal, the lies he tells about little indiscretions are there to camouflage even larger, more hideous indiscretions, and the way he moves smoothly from one to the other while still being a husband, family man, and teacher is one of the most disquieting things about the movie. The way he involves his home life without his family’s knowledge is almost monstrous. Raymond doesn't have a mask of sanity to let slip. There’s no slavering maniac here. He holds his life as a husband, father, and provider in perfect superposition with the horrible thing he has done. Rex is tormented by that day, by the way that Saskia slipped through his fingers, and he works tirelessly to try and come to some sort of understanding - he plasters posters asking for information everywhere, he goes on television, he searches photographs and videotape for the barest scraps of clues, and this obsession crowds out anything else that might be good in his life. It's similar ground to that covered some years later by Absentia to equally good effect - the wreckage that a sudden disappearance leaves behind and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it all.

So really, what the movie ends up being about (apart from the capriciousness of fate for all involved) is the idea of knowing something. Rex has pretty much given up his life over the last 3 years, he is driven utterly by the need to know what happened to Saskia that day. Raymond has his own questions, about himself, about his capabilities, about what it means to be a good man and whether or not it possible to be good without the existence of evil. It’s a matter of how far each one of them is willing to go. How far will Raymond go to find out who he is, and how far Rex will go to find out what happened to Saskia. Yes, on paper that's sort of cheesy, “how far will one man go” and all that, but it's played out as a literal journey here as well. The film takes place as a function of travel, the distance between Amsterdam and the cottage, between Raymond’s home and the rest stop, and in the final act, there is a literal retracing the actual steps of that day. Both of them wanted to know something, and for each of them, their knowledge each exerts a cost, and the sickest joke of all might be how much of the movie is foreshadowed even in the first shot. It opens on a close shot of a stick insect - something that hides in plain sight, hiding the absolute gut-punch of an ending in plain sight as well. Like I said, it’s all there, in the little details, everything you need to know.

Unavailable from Netflix
(NOTE: The American remake is available from Netflix on DVD, but it is, to say the least, inferior to this version. Don’t get them mixed up.)

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