A Simple Nightmare Idea
In 1988 a bizarre little Dutch thriller disconcerted enough people on both sides of the Atlantic to generate some serious word-of-mouth—so much, in fact, that its director, George Sluizer, was handed a pile of money a few years later to make an American version. About that second version, the less said the better. The first, though, earned itself a cult following not only of connoisseurs of the killer next door subgenre but also of cineasts transfixed by the intricacy of the narrative structure and the icy persuasiveness of the central performances. Both versions had the same title—The Vanishing (Spoorloos, for those of you following along in your Dutch–English dictionaries)—but the first version accomplished something that almost no other examples of that subgenre have been able to pull off: it left audiences demolished by their implied identification with what had taken place on-screen. Of course, all killer next door movies by definition aspire to that: there’s a little killer in all of us. Oooo: and we all give a little shiver. But until The Vanishing, no movie had so smoothly and implacably led its audience to a glimpse of the size and casualness of its capacity for sociopathy. And it’s the casualness of that sociopathy that seems to me so reminiscent of where Americans are today, as our society has finally begun to register in a widespread way what our elected officials have in our name brought down on all sorts of people in all sorts of places. Having registered that, we’ve gone about our business. Many—maybe most—of us are filled with regret, or distaste, to be sure. But meanwhile those elected officials are still sitting where they were eight years ago. And what are most of us doing about it? Well, a number of us are complaining to one another. There’s been a lot of shopping.
The Vanishing spins out of an appealingly simple little nightmare idea: a quasi-happy young couple, Rex and Saskia, pull into a rest stop in France on a cycling vacation. After they hang out for a little while, Saskia heads into France’s version of a Quik Mart to buy them a beer and a Coke. She never comes back.
What happened to her? Rex spends the rest of the movie trying to find out. We find out almost immediately, at least in terms of who did it. We don’t know, however, what he did. And of course, we want to know almost as much as Rex does.
It turns out that Raymond, placid family man and infinitely comfortable petit bourgeois, is behind her disappearance. In our first glimpse of him, he’s in his car working his hand through a false plaster cast, apparently in the hopes of faking a broken arm, when Rex and Saskia are pulling into the rest stop. He seems fastidious, frowning in serious-minded concentration over his goatee. We register him noticing them afterward, standing about with his ersatz arm sling. And after a harrowing seven minutes of screen time spent alongside an increasingly distraught Rex trying to negotiate the sheer impossibility of his girlfriend’s disappearance, the narrative shifts to Raymond, dressed like a businessman and carrying a small bottle to what looks like a neglected house in the country. The house in the country turns out to feature a family, and, while we watch, he and they set a table outside for a dinner in the yard. An affectionate if slightly fussbudgety dad and his wife and two teenage daughters sit down to a nice meal. One daughter opens a shallow drawer in the table and shrieks: it’s crawling with spiders. Raymond scolds her: they’re not only useful, they’re adorable, lovable animals. And that was a really beautiful scream, he adds. Can he hear it again? She gives it a shot. Both daughters alternate trying to outdo one another while the mother looks at each of them, disconcerted and uneasy. Then she’s asked to contribute, and after a hesitation, she screams, too. Raymond seems to approve; then, to be a good sport, he shrieks. We cut to the next day and a neighbor chatting with him. Raymond wants to know: His family thought they heard screams. Had the neighbor? No, the neighbor tells him. He hadn’t heard a thing. Raymond smiles, pleased.
Now we cut to what we gradually understand to be Raymond’s experiments: alone at that country house, he pours something from that little bottle onto a handkerchief, checks his watch, and holds the handkerchief over his nose and mouth. Later, he checks the duration of his unconsciousness. Dosages, etc., are recorded in a little notebook.
We slowly come to realize that he’s teaching himself predation. He practices his blocking, his moves, and his come-into-my-parlor conversation around his car: working it all out. It’ll take too much time, he realizes, if he doesn’t have his handkerchief ready; he’ll need to make sure the bottle’s stopper doesn’t open in his pocket; he’ll need to reach over to lock her door as the pretext for getting close enough to overpower her. Still pondering the complexities, he checks his watch and realizes he’s late. We cut to him picking up his teenage daughter from school and letting her into the car exactly as he just choreographed. Once in the car with her, he reaches over to lock her door, just as he rehearsed, and bear-hugs her, just as he rehearsed, except this bear hug ends in an affectionate hair-mussing rather than incapacitation.
When his daughter wants to know what’s up with the door locking, he tells her: Didn’t she read in the papers about that girl? The one who fell out onto the highway? That’s terrible! the daughter says, with enthusiasm. Is she dead? Come now, think about it, he chides her. At that speed, and on that surface, what else could have happened to her? The daughter thinks about that, satisfied. They’re both eating chocolate éclairs.
The Unheimlich in the Heimlich
The German word unheimlich is considered untranslatable, and our rough English equivalent, uncanny, is not so easy to define, either. The indescribability is the heart of the uncanny experience: it’s unsettling and/or terrifying precisely because it can’t be adequately explained. Freud focused on the way the uncanny derived its terror not from what we might expect—the alien or the unknown—but from the strangely familiar. In fact, he tracked the paradox back to its linguistic roots, and it turned out that heimlich, which had as its first dictionary definition: Belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly; arousing a sense of agreeable restfulness and security, had as its second: Concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others. And: Secretive, deceitful and malicious.
In other words, heimlich contained within itself the kernel that undermined the primary condition that it was supposed to create or provide. So that unheimlich was a subspecies of heimlich. Or here’s another way of putting it: inside what we thought we were sure of was the opposite of what we were sure of. Inside the everyday was what the everyday suppressed or overlooked.
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu plays Raymond, the sociopath at the heart of the story, the sort of guy who generates indulgent smiles from women: not very masculine, slightly fumbling, with that extra politesse designed to mask the neediness in his gaze. He’s proud of his competence, but he always seems to have a little something extra to prove. The movies have been fascinated with the covert murderousness of the petit bourgeoisie at least since Fritz Lang’s M, which made Peter Lorre a star for his role as the anonymous child murderer Hans Beckert. But it’s instructive to examine just how reassuringly visible—and different from his audience—Lang made his protagonist in that film. First of all, he cast Peter Lorre, a walking expressionist cartoon who looks and sounds, thank god, like no one you or I have ever met.
But equally important, we don’t really see Beckert operating as a smoothly functioning member of society. He goes unnoticed for a while, but that’s partly because Berlin is clearly filled with some other pretty strange-looking people as well, and partly because he mostly hides out in his room, or behind thick hedges in out-of-the-way cafés. When he is around little girls—his primary targets—he looks like a blind dog in a meat market. His difference—his abnormality—is not actually coded as invisible. People do notice him, and, slightly disconcerted, continue on their way. His strangeness is unpursued mostly because it’s such a big city. The Vanishing’s Raymond is the kind of guy who’d go unnoticed even in a lineup. Raymond goes everywhere and does everything, and he’s the last guy anyone would suspect of being abnormal, because he’s so normal. (At one point, as he and a friend gaze at Saskia’s missing-person poster, he reminds the friend that he’d once asked, “What if I had done it?” And the friend had laughed in his face.)
What’s going on here, though, is more unsettling than the standard revelation of a secret life. For Raymond, the murderousness grows organically out of what he would call his nurturing love for his family. His identity as a loving family man in fact empowers and enables his murderousness. He works out a trailer scam as part of his rest stop plan: he’ll approach lone women and ask them for help hitching his small trailer to the back of his car. This fails, humiliatingly, when women (and, in one case, a hostile and suspicious husband) angrily question why an able-bodied man needs help with a tiny trailer. It’s his family, though, that helps him figure out the scam’s fatal weakness: their loving commemoration of his life on his birthday occasions the photo album through which he pages until he comes across a snapshot of himself with a broken arm. At which point he realizes that he needs to seem weaker or more in distress to trap his prey.
It turns out that his status as family man also empowers him because it moves him out of the realm of the unheimlich and into the realm of the heimlich in the eyes of his potential victims. Toward the end, when we finally get to see what happened to Saskia, and Raymond tells her to get in his car right before he attacks her, she’s smart enough to hesitate, to sense something wrong. But what reassures her, and wins her over, is his photo of his family. Which hasn’t been deployed there specifically to fool her; it’s just from that other part of his life, like the kitchen tiles for a planned renovation dumped in the backseat.
The uncanny nature of the sociopath, who operates like a fully healthy human being except for when, within that normality, the most horrifying kinds of abnormality erupt, is nicely conceptualized by Freud’s essay on the uncanny. And also by The Vanishing. Saskia, we learn at the very end, has been buried alive in the yard of Raymond’s country house. She’s under the lunch table. In retrospect, then, we overlay that scene of bourgeois placidity and domesticity we witnessed earlier with the boxed-up and buried horror that was always beneath it. That’s as helpful an illustration or schematic of the uncanny as you’re going to find.
And then we remember that that same contrast between what was apparent and what was hidden inside the apparent was enacted on a smaller scale even in that earlier scene, by the drawer full of spiders, which Raymond defended as not only useful but adorable. His word choice is eloquent about the paradoxes he can hold in his head in terms of his sense of himself as a family man: spiders are adorable. And a pleasant family picnic staged over a body buried alive ends up seeming like a pretty good schematic of Raymond’s psyche.
OK. But so far that sounds like a lot of killer next door movies. The Vanishing’s weirder than that, though. Because that family picnic over a body buried alive also turns out to be a schematic of Rex’s psyche. And, by extension, one of the primary ways in which movies work. And, by extension, one of the primary ways in which our country, lately, works.
“Hitchcock in a Beret”
The missing-person poster is the movie’s way back to Rex’s story, which was abandoned soon after Saskia’s disappearance. After the scene of Raymond gazing at the poster, we cut to Rex stopping a car at an intersection in order to check out another one. He’s been obsessing about the disappearance for three years now, and climbing back into the car with his new girlfriend, he says something we might expect, followed up by something that seems kind of stunning. He tells the new girlfriend, while they drive, “Sometimes I imagine she’s alive. Somewhere far away. She’s very happy. And then I have to make a choice. Either I let her go on living and never know, or I let her die and find out what happened.” He looks over at the girlfriend coolly and smiles. “So… I let her die,” he concludes. “I don’t feel like being a part of a ménage à trois,” the new girlfriend complains in response, somewhat missing the point. And we have to take a moment to think about what Rex just said: Wait a minute. Did I hear that right?
Any movie about a sociopath has, we expect, inexplicability at its core. But as we get further and further into the movie, it’s the hero’s behavior that seems more and more inexplicable. If what Raymond is doing is in some acknowledged way inexplicable—after all, who can know why sociopaths do what they do?—what our hero Rex is doing is increasingly, in an unacknowledged way, nearly equally inexplicable. He’s obsessed about her disappearance for three years. He’s spent a fortune trying to find her. He’s refused to move on with his life. Why is he doing what he’s doing? He says he really loves her. He tells an interviewer it’s a kind of tribute: he calls it an homage. But a tribute to who, or what?
Their scenes together before her disappearance all turn out to center around Rex’s seemingly unmotivated irritability and cruelty. As they drive, the camera lingers on her application of her lipstick and his irritation with that; he even rudely raises her sun visor mirror. She gives him a look and lowers it again. She notices he’s low on gas when they pass a gas station, but she doesn’t say anything. He seems annoyed by the implicit notion that she might be judging his decision, and asks what she’s looking at. She tells him. He snaps back: “Just look in your mirror.” A few miles later, in a tunnel, they run out of gas. It seems to further enrage him that she’s turned out to have been right: he should’ve gotten gas. When she asks what they’re going to do, he tells her, somewhat hysterically, not to get hysterical. She makes the perfectly reasonable point that she’s not hysterical; she’s scared. She’s scared, she tells him. So what’s his response? To leave her there alone in the dark and in, he claims, serious danger. He tells her they’ve got to get out of the tunnel, given that oncoming traffic might see them only when it’s too late; she says they have a flashlight and begins looking for it. He tells her to stop, and when she doesn’t, he leaves her behind, crying and shouting his name. We hear her voice behind him in the darkness as he walks: “Rex, don’t leave me here alone. You can’t leave me here alone. Rex, wait!” And what’s his reaction? He smiles.
In a movie that also features one of the creepier sociopaths in film history, this is in fact its most quietly unsettling moment. What’s our hero smiling at? Why is he abandoning her? What’s his thought process, exactly? Come with me; it’s too dangerous where we are. You’re hesitating? Fine. Stay here and die, then.
The more we examine their time together, the more we realize that Saskia, when she’s around, generates all sorts of unruly anxiety in Rex about just who he is and what he’s like. He believes he loves her, that he thinks the world of her, and he acts as if he feels horribly boxed in by his connection with her, and can barely keep his aggression under control.
In retrospect, that image of her panicked and crying and trapped in that tiny little car is an image of where Raymond left her, finally, as well. And as Rex walks away from her and her increasingly panicked protests, it’s her shriek that generates his smile. As in: you’re terrified; I like that. And: you need me now; I like that. And: I’m free; I like that.
After they’re speaking again, at the highway rest stop, she leans over him on the ground and commands him to repeat after her: He values her. He will never abandon her. And we can see that he’s charmed and we can see how much he cares about her, and he agrees to all of that. And her affect, after she receives his pledge, is suddenly hauntingly sad. As though she knows he won’t be able to keep it. And here’s a thought: that expression on her face at that moment is part of what fuels his obsession after her disappearance. Because what he saw on her face was her understanding that in all probability, he wasn’t going to keep his promise. And she didn’t believe she’d eventually be abandoned because she anticipated her own abduction. She believed it because of something she already understood about him.
In one of their first scenes together she complains to him that she’s had her recurring nightmare again: the one about herself inside a golden egg in which she feels as if she’s doomed to be alone forever. In the dream, she tells him, the loneliness is unbearable. Hmm. Maybe, her analyst would say, she’s not talking only about her future.
If that’s true, then part of what he’s seeking through his determination to never give up on finding her—even after he understands that she’s almost certainly already dead—is an ongoing self-ratification. He did love her. He didn’t abandon her. He is a good person. He can prove it: he never quit looking for her. He may not have acted as though he valued her when she was around, but by god, he’ll fix that now that she’s gone. He stages himself as someone who, no matter what, will never give up, because in some way he knows how much he wanted to give up. He remembers, in fact, the alacrity with which he gave up before.
And in not giving up, he gets both to preserve his feelings for the object of his devotion and to keep his distance from it. As though he were in a golden egg right next to hers. After having abandoned her in the tunnel, he tries to make it up to her by telling her that that was when he loved her the most. Then: when he was abandoning her.
Inside the rock-solid, the bottom drops away: that colloquial definition of the uncanny seems to be Rex’s inner experience of his feelings for Saskia. It’s startling how often he makes explicit that he’s not looking to recover her. He never does say he wants Saskia back. What he keeps saying he wants is knowledge. He wants to know what happened. And he’d rather know than have her back. Whoa. That aligns him with Raymond, who says he does what he does partially so he can know if he can do it and what it would feel like. And that makes him similar to us, as well.
Detached curiosity. Absorbed identification that still leaves the viewer in a position of safety: where would the movies be without it?
Explaining his mysterious passion for visiting their country house, Raymond tells his wife: You start with an idea in your head. Then you take a step. Then another. Soon you realize you’re up to your neck in something intense. Not a bad account of the way in which thrillers operate.
Rex doesn’t need to have Saskia back; he doesn’t even seem to want to have Saskia back. He needs to know. And the movie works hard to generate that impulse in us, as well. Which brings us to its narrative structure: it’s not a whodunit—we learn the who very early on—and yet it still generates suspense. Partially because we want to know what will happen between Raymond and Rex. And partially because, like Rex, we want to know what happened to Saskia. And is that because we’re concerned about her? Not exactly. Or not entirely. Like Rex, we’re already more or less sure she’s been killed.
The Vanishing was repeatedly compared to Hitchcock’s movies—Sluizer was described as “Hitchcock in a beret”—and that seems understandable; like a movie like Vertigo, it’s a thriller about knowledge, and what’s disturbing is not what the characters don’t know about the crime but what they do know about it. And about themselves. Which allows us, as we watch, to make some uncomfortable connections to what we want and do. And to what the movies do for us.
A Perverse Buddy Picture
The Vanishing continually teases us with knowledge about to be revealed, often by leaving Raymond in Rex’s close proximity again and again, unnoticed. Part of Rex’s torment is the way he’s being toyed with by the unknown killer: five times he’s been sent postcards instructing him to go to a particular spot, all near the site of the abduction; five times Rex has gone, and had no idea who, around him, is the murderer. One of those times is dramatized for us: Rex and his new girlfriend, sitting grimly in a café. Rex tells her his greatest fear has become that the murderer will stop sending him cards, because then he’ll never know. And, as though responding to that fear, the camera begins to track around behind them. While the tracking continues, his girlfriend warns him that the murderer’s playing with him; that he just wants to see how far Rex will go. “He’s having a blast,” she tells him. “We’ll see,” he answers. And we do, and don’t: once behind them, we can see, between them, standing placidly on a balcony in the distance, a torso we assume to be Raymond’s, hands on the railing, checking them out. The distance doesn’t allow us to make out the figure’s identity. We cut to a reverse shot from behind those hands on the rail: there’s Rex and his girlfriend in the distance, their eyes on the other café-goers. And we’re made aware of our desire to see, and the way our desire was only half satisfied.
Although the narrative more or less splits its time between Raymond and Rex, and although Raymond’s the one we see, in flashback, trying to figure out how to abduct and murder someone, Rex is the one who spends the movie continually agitated. As though he’s the one dealing with the unspeakable. As indeed he is. Saskia disappears fifteen minutes into the movie. Raymond reveals himself to Rex about an hour in, and they remain together until the end, approximately forty-five minutes later. Which means that Raymond and Rex spend three times as much time together as Saskia and Rex do.
It’s supposed to be a triangle—Raymond having come between Rex and Saskia. But Rex and Raymond spend way more time together, and way more time together comfortably, than Rex and Saskia do.
The Vanishing turns out to be, in its own perverse way, a buddy picture. It divides its narrative between two points of view: not perpetrator and victim, unless we adopt Rex’s solipsistic view that he’s the victim, that he’s the one who’s been robbed of something. And what is it that he doesn’t have, that he wants? He confirms it, with Raymond: not Saskia, but knowledge. Raymond seems to recognize a kindred spirit in Rex the same way Rex does in him, despite himself. Part of what so interested Freud about the uncanny was the way, as he saw it, its premise of the unfamiliar within the familiar staged the collapse of the psychic boundary between the self and others. For Rex, the unknown is not just what’s in the mind of the criminal. All through the movie, he does all sorts of things that need some explaining, all of which he leaves unexplained. (What is his explanation for why he left Saskia in the tunnel? He doesn’t offer one. He tells her instead only that he’s sorry.)
What’s animating him, though, is a fear of Saskia, and that seems even harder for him to face than his attraction to Raymond. For Freud the uncanny had such power because it exposed knowledge already present but repressed.
When it comes to Saskia, Rex’s emotions could not vary more wildly, from the intensely loving to the murderous. No wonder, then, that he finds the even-tempered nature of the sociopath so fascinating.
When interviewed about his obsessions, when asked what kind of person he believes the murderer to be, he sounds like he’s designing a personals ad: he thinks—no, he amends, he’s sure—the man’s very intelligent. At this point Rex smiles warmly into the camera. And he’s a total perfectionist. His admiration and his certainty are both a little disconcerting. How does he know what that person is like? What information does he have? He’s extrapolating. Or projecting. If he has no information, then it’s all his fantasy. And the movie makes his fantasy true. Every way in which he characterizes Raymond, on the basis of almost no information, turns out to be accurate.
Freud would suggest that the essence of the uncanny is something in the unconscious that manifests in reality. Saskia dreamed she was trapped in a golden egg. Rex tells us, in that interview, that he’s started having the same dream. Raymond, watching the interview on television, very likely gets his idea of what to do with Rex—how to solve Rex’s problem—by hearing about Rex’s dream. Their future, in other words, explicitly comes from the dream they each share. For Saskia, it’s a nightmare. For Rex, it’s an endless source of fascination. That may be why Saskia is so sad when she asks him never to abandon her.
The Cocoon of Comfort
As others have pointed out, we view movies in the theater with a dreamlike receptivity, in the dark, sitting back, looking up at the screen in an experience that’s like hypnosis: a temporarily regressive mental state in which we’re allowed to merge with what we’re watching. On the one hand, we’re in a state of enforced passivity—we can say, after a gruesome moment in a horror movie, I didn’t want to see that!—and on the other, we register that those impulses we’re viewing on-screen are inside us somewhere, when it comes to our own psyches. It would be one thing if we went to see a musical and it turned out to be a slasher film. It’s another when we go to see a slasher film and then claim that we didn’t want to see what we saw.
So how’s this for a model of the way we relate to what we see on-screen? Raymond’s first sociopathic act was jumping from a high balcony when he was a boy. Before jumping he said to himself, Imagine you’re jumping. That thought experiment gave him permission to jump. Rex, having heard that story, uses it himself, later, to persuade himself to put his fate into a sociopath’s hands in order to get the information he says he wants. Raymond tells him: drink this sleeping pill, and you’ll know everything. He tells him, I’ll do to you what I did to her. And it’s the only way you’ll find out. Of course, Rex realizes how crazy it is to act on those terms. But then, so did Raymond. And of course, in the audience, we’re sitting there calling out, “Don’t do it! What are you, nuts?” But think about how disappointed we’d be if Rex walked away from the offer, and the movie ended there.
As a boy on that balcony, Raymond projected himself into an imagined situation as a first step toward doing the unthinkable. Rex decided to do the same thing. Because they know they’re projecting, they can pretend that they’re just trying things on, that they’re spectators first. It’s a way of hanging on to the notion that you’re not responsible even as you ease yourself into an act for which you are responsible.
Detroit’s Metro Times recently interviewed Scott Ritter, an ex–Marine Corps intelligence officer and chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq who’s been trying to sound the alarm about our present administration’s apparent determination to repeat its catastrophic interventionism with an attack on Iran. At one point, the reporter asked why, in the face of everything we now know, there seems to be no general groundswell of outrage about or opposition to the plan. Ritter reminded him:
Very few Americans actually function as citizens anymore.… Americans are primarily consumers today, and so long as they continue to wrap themselves in a cocoon of comfort, and the system keeps them walking down a road to the perceived path of prosperity, they don’t want to rock the boat. If it doesn’t have a direct impact on their day-to-day existence, they simply don’t care.
Do we know what’s being done in our name? Yes: mostly we do. I know, I know: many of us are not that well informed, etc. But take Iraq: nearly everybody in America knows by this point that something like between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are dead because of our intervention and that that intervention was not based on reasons that were quite as urgent as advertised. And here’s the thing: even knowing that, we’re serene in our knowledge that we’re still good people. Yes, however many thousands have been killed because of leaders we tolerate. And yes, that’s probably all happening at this point for no good reason. But does that make us bad people? No; of that, we’re sure. We have our own sense of ourselves to prove it.
As does Raymond. Part of his placidity comes from his understanding that he’s not the sort of person who murders. He’s murdered someone, yes, but as The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry memorably put it a few years ago on the subject of Abu Ghraib, what the world needs to understand about Americans is that just because we did something, that doesn’t mean we’re capable of doing it.
Raymond’s wife and daughters are meant to experience their picnic as heimlich: Dad’s an affectionate provider, and they’re enjoying the good life at their summer home. But even they feel perturbations in the field: They each ask about a secret life of his that they sense. They just get the specifics of the question wrong. None of their questions bother Raymond. As far as he’s concerned, he’s a good man who did a hideous thing. This interests him about himself, but not unduly.
That need to maintain denial is very powerful. Which is why we follow Rex, our hero, for so long while still minimizing his weirdness. Weirdness in this case being better defined as aggression—at times murderous aggression—toward the woman he claims he loves. We would prefer not to notice such things about characters with whom we’ve decided, even temporarily, to identify.
And our enforced passivity gives us permission to feel all sorts of unpleasant things. Just before the movie’s climax, we’re made privy to what we’ve most wanted to see: what happened between Raymond and Saskia. And if we’d overlooked that the movie’s design had been teasing before, we certainly don’t miss it this time around.
Saskia goes into the Quik Mart to use the bathroom. Raymond hovers nearby. And again he fucks up, and our long-awaited resolution seems delayed: he hesitates; she buys a Frisbee and heads back out; he’s mobbed by a busload of kids and can’t get to her before she leaves.
He tries with someone else. She seems a likely victim; she even volunteers to get into his car. About to climb in himself, he sneezes into his hanky after having put the chloroform on it. Recovering in the men’s room, he has to laugh at himself: he’s really bad at this predator thing. (This is now at least the fifth woman with whom we’ve seen him fail.) He takes off his sling and pockets it, as if resolving that maybe he’s just not cut out to be a psycho murderer.
But back Saskia comes, still looking for her drinks. And it’s significant that he doesn’t seem particularly focused on her, or predatory, during her initial requests for change. And he doesn’t try to pursue the matter when she tells him, never mind, she’ll just get change from the cashier. In fact, his long look after she again leaves seems to suggest regret more than anything else.
When she returns with the change, he’s at the edge of the frame, sipping his coffee and very assiduously not looking at her. To emphasize that, we get a medium shot of him looking down and allowing himself only one surreptitious glance. Then we cut to her holding up both cans and proclaiming her happiness. She tells him how nice it is to speak French; he tells her her French is very good; she says he’s a liar. Is that right? she asks him, testing her pronunciation. Is he a liar? That’s correct, he tells her. And because of her bad French, she points at his keychain, the one with the capital R his daughter gave him for his birthday, and says, “Look at me.” (She wants one for Rex, but can’t pull off the “Look at that!”) Apparently she’s been reading film criticism about the way in which, in movies, women are the object of the male gaze.
So he does look at her. And as she tells him about her love for Rex, we can see Raymond starting to really like her. His stated purpose, he confided earlier, was to do the most horrible thing of which he could conceive. And that would involve killing someone he thought was pretty wonderful. Someone who really didn’t deserve to die. He looks down, and thinks about it, and she’s toast. We get to see him decide.
One of the movie’s achievements is that at that moment, from a flashback—she’s been missing for years, according to the narrative, and we’re finally about to see what horrible thing happened to her—she’s at her most attractive, and most appealing. It’s a part of the movie’s manipulative design that right there is where we like her the most. Right before, like Rex, we lose her forever. Johanna ter Steege won the European Film Award for her performance, and that scene is the main reason why.
As she keeps after him—about change at the coffee machine, and then about her French, and then about his keychain, and how much she loves her boyfriend—we’re surprised and dismayed by how much she’s getting herself into trouble, and that makes us feel some of Rex’s rage, and some of his tendency to blame her for what happened. We’re both touched at how likable she is and frustrated at her persistence—why does she have to be so charming?—while we watch her reawaken Raymond’s predation. Why does she have to be so charming: that seemed to have been Rex’s complaint about her, as well. That was the form his fear of her seemed to take. Which suggests that when Raymond abducts her, he’s not only appalling us but acting out our aggression, too.
So that Rex’s real agonized question throughout the movie is not: Is Saskia OK? Or even: What did the killer do to her? It’s more: What’s up with what I want?
Well: he doesn’t want to know. His realization of that propels him into a situation that serves as a punishment. For him, knowledge is dangerous. Raymond can prove it: Raymond’s a sociopath who’s already murdered someone, and Raymond tells him, You’ll have to turn yourself over to me to find out what you think you want to know. And Rex does. Part of what Raymond’s selling with his offer is control of Saskia through her conversion to information, to knowledge. And a stabilized separation that operates as a kind of proximity: I’m not saying you’ll have Saskia back. I’m saying you’ll know what happened to her. Rex doesn’t know it, but Raymond is about to bury him in a box, just as he buried Saskia. The boxes will be side-by-side beneath the picnic table. If Rex has been frightened by the notion of merging in some fundamental way with Saskia, Raymond is here to allay that fear. Raymond in fact can give Rex what he most wants—knowledge—and punish him for it at the same time. Raymond can guarantee that Rex can always stay near Saskia, and always stay separate from her.
Early on, when talking about her golden egg dream, Saskia told Rex, as if channeling his anxiety, that later in the dream there’d been two eggs, and that Rex had been inside the other, and that she’d felt like “if we were to collide, it would all be over.”
The amount to which Rex understands that helps explain some of his most inexplicable actions when he realizes what’s happened to him at the end. Taking stock of the fact that he’s been buried alive, he not only reacts with shock and horror—he also laughs. And he also, even more surprisingly, announces his identity. “I’m Rex Hofman!” he shouts at the top of his lungs. Uh, OK. Why is that an issue at this point? How many people do you know who would, waking to find themselves buried alive, feel the need to announce their name? Rex does. No more of that merger-with-the-woman stuff for him. He’s not part of a pair. He’s just Rex Hofman.
Those twin golden eggs represent not just an ironic final frustration but also his fondest wish. What Dante described as a lover’s situation in hell—the two alongside one another, imprisoned so they could never touch—Rex describes, when he first recounts his dream, as something that’s fascinating and unsettling but not undeniably horrible.
Rex’s psyche has conjured Saskia’s disappearance much the same way that Raymond’s has. And Raymond is Rex’s surrogate in the same way he’s ours: we want to disavow him, but we don’t only want to disavow him.
After the tunnel, Rex vowed never again to abandon Saskia, but he knew in his heart he already had. And that’s the knowledge he’ll do anything not to have to face. On some level, he’d always known that the killer had been acting as his surrogate. Saskia’s too threatening: I wish she and everything she represents would go away. And poof: Raymond complied.
When Americans think about ourselves as an aggregate, we cherish the notion of our benevolence toward the rest of the world. That benevolence extends so far in our minds’ eyes that it can even, for some of us, provide cover for our ferocity and destructiveness—hence the famous remark often attributed to General Westmoreland about having to destroy a Vietnamese village in order to save it. For most of us, though, the repression takes a simpler form. We’ve already colluded with our media when it comes to that knowledge we’ll do anything not to have to face. We want all of those casualties—all of that proof of our failure to live up to our own capacities as human beings—to just go away. And poof: they do.