“Spoorloos” is a 1988 Dutch thriller that is widely held to be one of the best Dutch thrillers of all time. It’s not difficult to see why it’s held in such high esteem. The plot is a relatable one, and the film, on the whole, is tight and tense. However, the film is nearly thirty years old, and shows its age in many ways, sometimes to the point of being distracting.
The plot follows the story of Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) on their vacation through France. As they stop at a gas station for gas and snacks, Saskia vanishes, presumed abducted. Three years later, there’s still been no trace of her, save for occasional mysterious letters sent by someone who knows quite a bit about the case. Rex is at the edge of madness trying to discover who is behind both the letters and the abduction, but there is, as the film’s title suggests, no trace to be found.
The plot is not necessarily the film’s strong point. It is tight and well-knit to be sure, but not unique or interesting enough on its own to merit the acclaim this film gets. That said, there is a lot to be said in its favour. As stated, it is well-put together, and there are no gaps in logic to puzzle the viewer or twists that make no sense. The setting for the horror is also brilliantly done, being relatable, but also distant enough as to not be too terrifying. It’s well thought-out, and shows the love that has been put into it.
However, it is the villain, Raymond Lermone (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), who really sells the film. He is one of the ways in which the film clearly shows its age, but also by far one of its strongest points. He is a psychopath, and as his motivations for his actions become clearer and clearer, the horror of that fact is allowed to sink in. The audience is taken through his thoughts step by step, being led to the inevitable but unthinkable conclusion like a cow to the slaughter. We know what’s coming, but the idea that this innocent-looking man would be capable of such a thing is mind-boggling. At times, the audience even finds themselves laughing at his antics before realising what it is he’s doing. He’s a brilliantly done character. The second half of the film focuses on him, and it is this second half that clearly raises it to be something spectacular.
That said, Lermone does show the film’s age, and does show the prevailing tropes of the time. He is a far cry from the more well-known horror villains such as Hannibal Lecter. He’s a proto-type of a Lecter-esque character, beginning to explore what makes a character like that tick without quite having the courage to devote a film specifically to that psychopathy. This is very much a film about Rex and his quest to find Saskia. It’s just augmented and greatly improved by the exploration of Lermone’s psyche along the way.
There are other ways in which the film shows its age. The music, for instance, is sometimes baffling with the sense that it’s trying too hard to set a mood. There is little trust in the visuals to convey the emotion or story, and instead a reliance on a synthesiser that, at times, is jarring and laughably unpleasant. However, if one can overlook this, then many of the film’s other instances of looking or being old can be overlooked as well.
On the whole, “Spoorloos’” reputation as a fantastic example of a Dutch thriller is well-deserved, though sometimes lacking. The first half of the film is lackluster, and the music sometimes makes it seem more like a comedy than a thriller. The second half descends into horror, though, and the creeping sensation of not knowing when to laugh, when to cry, and when to scream. Donnadieu’s performance of an average, everyday psychotic serial killer is perfect, and brings the film to glorious life.Continue Reading Issue #23
October 27, 1988 (Netherlands)
1 hr. 47 min.
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege