Warning: The following post contains a few spoilers in case you have not seen the Dutch-French movie The Vanishing (1988) (there is also a Hollywood version by the same director, which is deemed inferior to the original I am discussing here). But be assured that I am keeping my spoilers to the utmost minimum; if you have read the synopsis and have heard what the movie is about, then the information presented here should not deter too much from the enjoyment of the movie. Anyhow, I am not giving away the ending; I am, for the most part, providing a character analysis.
My focus here is the depiction of its psychopath Raymond Lemorne and the relation to André Gide's gratuitous act, a concept best exemplified in the novel Caves of the Vatican (aka Lafcadio's Adventures). Although the movie Spoorloos has its share of weaknesses in terms of film-making, I was rather impressed with its script by Tim Krabbé (based on his own novel), particularly the dialogue involving the psychopath's train of thought that discloses his perturbed state of mind.
There are few psychopaths that scare me or give me the creeps. Both Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates are amusing in comparison, and I would not mind having tea with them in a crowded public location, that is. Nonetheless, here is one that I would never want to run across. At first, Raymond Lemorne seems to have walked straight out of the stained pages of a French novel. He seems a bit odd and rather stiff in his demeanor, but we can tell he is highly intelligent. He is a chemistry teacher, a family man and, yes, as he admits himself, we may find him classified in the dictionaries as a “sociopath.”
It all started, according to him, when he was a teenager. He was on the balcony reading when he suddenly had the urge to jump. He says that many think about it, but few actually do so. In fact, in terms of predestination, most of us are destined “not” to jump. The voice of reason, at least, urges him not to, but there is a nagging feeling that wants and urges him to commit the deed.
It is important to note that there is no particular underlying reason or motive for any of this. It is not out of pain or suffering nor heartache that he wants to jump off the balcony. He just wants to disobey his common sense; he wants to do something utterly absurd if not stupid to prove that he is not only free from the constraints of logic, but that he has, in fact, free will. Perhaps it may be due to a genetic abnormality or a chemical imbalance in his brain, but be it as it may, he actually jumps...
He survives with broken limbs, but with the realization that he has done something others are too much of a “coward” to actually attempt. He has managed to defy and rebel against reason. He has managed to do “otherwise,” to choose the option that was not to be expected of him, hence a counterpoint to his personality and existence.
One might claim, however - and this is when the issue of free will becomes tricky, not to say downright complex – that he thinks or he is under the illusion that he had a choice to begin with, but in fact he could not have done “otherwise;” in that case, his “not” jumping would have been more surprising when considering and taking into account the characteristics of his mind and personality.
Later, he has another experience, this time as a family man. His daughter points out a drowning girl and without hesitation, he dives into the water and saves the girl. In his family's eyes, he is a hero. But here his train of thought completely derails. He says to himself, if I am truly a hero, I will not be able to commit atrocious acts. If I am capable of evil deeds, then I am definitely not a hero. And to find out, he would have to test himself, to put himself in the midst of the stream, to see how far he can go without flinching.
As a result, he comes up with an uncanny but methodical plan to abduct a random woman. As a rigorous scientist, he leaves nothing to chance but plans everything out. He uses chloroform (remember he is a chemist) on himself and just before nodding off he clicks his stopwatch. The moment he awakes he will know exactly how much time has lapsed with that particular amount of chloroform. Everything is calculated with mathematical precision. He even takes his own pulse in different situations to see if he has the nerve to go through with the whole act.
Here I will not give away his eventual method, but will only say that the abduction itself will go thanks to the “laws of chance.” He calls it destiny. In other words, his own carefully planned method fails, but suddenly he is presented with an “opportunity.” And he is fast enough to jump (!) upon it and on its unsuspecting victim. Was it then coincidence (le hasard), a random event of chance or destiny? The movie may side with the second option due to premonitions and dreams of the aforementioned woman.
I find this character of Lemorne in its meticulous yet faulty reasoning both fascinating and extremely unsettling. It reminded me of André Gide's gratuitous act, which means that a hideous deed, a murder, for instance, is undertaken for no particular motive whatsoever. There is nothing to be gained from this act, no rhyme or reason to speak of. It is, as it says about itself, a completely gratuitous and morally vacant act.
At the same time, it is out of the blue and completely unexpected. The only driving force might be curiosity, our darkest desire to see what would happen should we do the unthinkable, to take someone else's life. But in contrast to most psychopaths, there is no sexual gratification in this cruelty and violence. It is rather an intellectual exercise or cerebral form of ecstasy.
The movie makes us uncomfortable with this character that appears respectable and common on the outside, but is hiding the voice of the beast in his head. It is reasoning and intelligence used for the wrong ends and purposes. And to boot, and this especially makes this whole thing so untenable, is the fact that there have been and are many serial killers, Ted Bundy, for example, who are very intelligent and even personable but are channeling their creativity and talent into morally unsettling back alleys, the hidden caves of human existence.