Bright Lights Film Journal

The Vanishing Remade: From the Desire of Being to the Burial of Human Subjectivity

Burying an original

In his own career as playwright, Henrik Ibsen suffered what we might call a “self-silencing” in his remake of A Doll’s House with a new, more public-friendly, “morally normal” ending: far from the main character’s role in the original play as the woman who walks out on her family, the female lead of Ibsen’s remade tale opts instead to stay for the sake of the children. Here, a remake silences the original in an almost violent display. In his 1993 version of his 1988 film The Vanishing, director George Sluizer suffers the very same, and equally violent, moment of self-silencing.

The remake buries every subtlety of the original, absurdly tacking on a “Hollywood ending” in which the main character, after being buried alive in the narrative’s gripping climax, is rescued from his interment by his new girlfriend. Where the conclusion of the original sees the main character buried alive, laughing knowingly in chilling recognition of his own fate having been finally met, the remake version treats this crucial scene as a mere sidepoint, as the plot’s new conclusion features the main character’s feisty new love interest literally undigging him from the grip of his fate. The only saving grace of this silly remake would seem to be its precipitating reflection on how the standard Hollywood tropes of love, life, and human being fail to capture the subtleties of such things as love, life, and human being. In burying the subtlety of its original, this version buries the very idea of human subjectivity itself.

Golden Eggs, or Coffee Without Cream?

Set in the shadow of the main female character’s dream of two golden eggs, the original film masterfully plays with the overlapping symbolic spaces of enclosure, birth, isolation, love, and renewal. Following a series of dreams in which she recounts seeing herself encased within a golden egg, in the film’s opening sequence Saskia tells us of a new double-egg motif in which she dreams that there are two golden eggs floating in space. “When the two meet, that is the end,” Saskia reflects.

Ultimately brought to fruition in the inevitable fate of each of the two lovers, this foreboding message speaks at once to the fragility of being as it speaks too to the space of separation between us: break through into the shell of the lover and you will have destroyed the subject itself. In the condition of human life, we are drawn to the lover, and in spite of our desires for absorption, we can never erase the boundaries of twoness. Each of us remains, then, in our shell — at once a message of loss (I cannot absorb my lover) and presence (I love you without making you into me).

Clearly a key underlying theme in the film, this image of fragility, loss, and presence is reinforced in the closing scene shot of the newspaper headline on the mysterious double disappearance, featuring photos of the two lovers, each in a golden-hued oval. The image permeates the film in various unexpected ways as well. The golden egg is the light at the end of the enclosed tunnel in which the two characters are trapped at the start of the film. The golden eggs are the headlights of the 18-wheeler truck bearing down on them in the tunnel’s darkness. The golden eggs are the two pennies planted by the lovers safely under rocks at the base of a tree near the very site of the ensuing abduction. And, in perhaps the most striking use of the image, one that pulls the thematic of the compresence of love’s loss and presence to the fore, the penultimate scene features the main character, himself now trapped in an underground coffin and able finally to know the fate of his lover, calling out his lover’s name while gazing (serenely?) into the dying golden light of an oval flame (a flame struck with the lighter given to him by his lost love).

Here, again, the remake falters. No mention is made of the dream of the golden eggs. To no real end within the new film itself (and without any reference to golden eggs or the rich implications of that symbol for the original film), the new version does emphasize the symbol of infinity, providing viewers of the original movie an important new symbolic engagement with the idea of two eggs, side by side. But in the remake, this lacks any real significance.

In fact, in the new film, this focus on infinity is highly ironic, pointing as it does to the very limitation of the remake in relation to its original, presenting, as it does, an image of human being as somehow neat and tidy. Instead of being sensitive, as is the first film, to the swelling madness at the core of each self, the abyss of infinity that constitutes us at our very core, the remake champions a simplistic notion of normalcy, and objectifies and externalizes madness as a kind of bogie man “out there” whom the strong among us can beat down with a stick. Literally (and unfortunately so), the new movie, in its insulting new ending, shows the valiant woman heroine as beating down the bogie man Jeff Bridges with a stick. Madness is a force ‘out there.’ It is that which the ‘not normal’ amongst us have. It is that which typifies the crazy bogie man of an abductor in the new film, a force which almost manages in engulfing the main male character as an obsessive love for and quest for his lost love but which he luckily is made able to rise above. As if caught in the torrents of love and embroiled in the madness of the human spirit in its encounter with loss and desire, a truly present human being can so readily rise above itself. In the ethos of the remake, the happy ending is one in which the complexity of self (and its madness) is replaced with a paradigm of normalcy: If you are normal, you can fight off madness. If you are the Keifer Sutherland character, and if you are lucky enough to have a woman in your life who will fight for your normalcy, then you will be exhumed from the abyss — you will literally be dug up from your coffin beneath the earth (a ridiculous plot change from the original), and you will, more generally, be shaken out of your silly, mad quest for a lost love (an even more ridiculous change from the original). You will be normalized, and will now be able to go to restaurants and engage in other pleasant social niceties with your pretty new girlfriend. You will dress in nice clothes, get married, and forget about that old lost love: after all, let’s be reasonable. Madness is only for crazy people. Normalcy, defined by the space of societal norms, is for normal people. We have entered Ibsen’s remade Doll House. And so, instead of a human force at the core of being itself, madness, in the remake, is the thing that crazy kind of folks have, but which “we normal folk” don’t have to worry about, as long as we’re strong. In this spirit of objectifying and demonizing madness, the abductor in the new movie, but not in the original, is portrayed (by Jeff Bridges) as something of a buffoon — something of an eccentric; he is the odd, ragged around the edges, high school science lab teacher. This, in contrast to the original film where this character carries no such eccentric traits: he is a respected family man, a college professor, and, in general, very meticulous and polished around the edges. Here, we see the shift between the two films: whereas the first is a study of the madness within, the second understands madness only as an outside force — one, moreover, which normal people don’t have and which, furthermore, normal people can fend off (with a stick, or, presumably, otherwise). Walk normal, says the remake. And carry a big stick.

Signaling this break from the original, the final image of the lovers’ faces framed in golden eggs is replaced with a final close-up of two cups of black coffee. Here, the irregularity of the oval is replaced with the neat and tidy appearance of circles. Here too, the depth of implication for loss and presence found in the image of two golden eggs is replaced with a blackness. The complexity of human subjectivity is brushed aside, and two cups of coffee are wheeled in. As if the violation to the original were not already clear, the remake actually ends with said coffee cups being forcibly removed from the table altogether. Standing, as they do, as replacements for the closing scene golden eggs of the first film, the removal of these coffee cups almost signals to the viewer of the first film a final rejection of that first film’s complex vision of human self. The inane final joke shared between the two new lovers (referring to the abductor’s nearly killing them both through drug-laced coffee) is that “we don’t drink coffee anymore.” It is almost as if this remade ending is shouting out to viewers: “Don’t look here if you want any of that damn complex stuff about human subjectivity. Things are simpler here.” Blackness of nothing is the new inner life of human being: there is nothing worth pursuing on the inside; love and life and being are about what things look like on the outside. If you love me, you will kiss me (a message seen in the second film’s use of a deep kiss between the two initial lovers to indicate love — a move not relied upon by the first film which, in its deep and intricate portraiture of human being would not dare reduce love to two pairs of lips). In our new film, the spirit of human being is buried as love emerges in the most simplistic terms of prime time sitcoms: If you love me, you will stop being torn by the loss of your first love (an idea captured in the second film’s depiction of the new girlfriend’s attitude; this in contrast to the stance of care seen in the original’s characterization of the would-be (but can’t-be) new girlfriend who, in her care, must leave the main character to his quest). If you want to be, just be normal. If you want to be normal, just follow the crowd. If you want follow the crowd, you’d best rid yourself of any dangerous, infecting madnesses within. Be like me — I am! In this regard, it is noteworthy that whereas the first film ends with the image of the two lovers side by side in golden oval shaped sphere on the newspaper headline (silently relating to one another in their individual separateness and shared joint presence), the remake ends with the two new lovers exchanging silly pleasantries in a public restaurant in the immediate face of a third party at the table with them. Here, the unspeakable intimacy of the one and of the two is only given to voice in the context of a third, in the space of public order, and through the conventions of language. In the garrulous space of public discourse, human subjectivity has been silenced.

Blending Life Forms, Praying Life Forms: The Madness of Being

The original film The Vanishing is a study of human subjectivity. It is about the limitlessness of the abyss of human unconsciousness, an ever-present defining madness at the ground of self. It is about the limits of a subject’s encounter with other subjects. It is about the bittersweet, unfulfillable promise of love. It is about integrity and the space of authentic being. It is about the Other’s suffocation of self. It is about the self’s own suffocation of self.

In this spirit, the original film opens with the image of a Stick Insect. Blending into its environs, it is a telling symbol of the human condition, representing, as it does, a perfect mix of absence and living presence. On the one hand, this unique insect — in consort with its surroundings — makes itself disappear, allowing itself to literally blend into the woodwork. And yet, on the other hand, this insect signifies the prevailing singularity of a living subject, as, in spite of its environs erasing it into invisibility, and in spite of its own complicit blending activity, the creature emerges as the most unusual, atypical and crowning feature of her landscape. It is living symbol of human subjectivity itself as a complex blend of absence and presence — living symbol perhaps along with the Praying Mantis, the creature whom we briefly encounter in the original film’s closing scene sequence. This creature, while also blending into her surroundings, stands as further symbol of the human condition, symbolizing, as she does, the complex dangers of engaging the Other. Here we find the complexity of the human relation to Other: on the one hand, my own human ground is not given life until I meet the Other (I must find myself in ministering to your call), and yet on the other hand, it is precisely in this encounter with Other that we meet find the source of our deepest human sufferings (I cannot ever have you; I cannot ever make you into me; I must always part from you in unfulfilled desire).

Both creatures are absent in the film’s lifeless remake, as is any other sensitivity to the complexity of the human self.

Nailing the Coffin Shut: Putting the Subject to Rest?

To the removal of the insects and coffee cups as indication of the new film’s interment of the themes of the original, we may add one more salient example. In both films, the abductor is claustrophobic. This is why, in testing the parameters of his own evil, he sets out to bury someone alive — the ultimate evil for the claustrophobic; the fate far worse than death. In both films, furthermore, we learn of this claustrophobia when the abductor is pulled over in his car by a police officer for one thing or another, and is then further reprimanded for not wearing his seatbelt. In the original, the abductor at this point pulls out medical papers — a dispensation from a medical doctor attesting to his condition as a legitimate reason not to buckle his seatbelt. (As a claustrophobic myself, I am ready to share with any interested parties the story of the time my seat belt would in fact not release…). In the context of the first film, the oppressiveness of inner turmoil is real. In the remake, when the officer tells the Jeff Bridges character to buckle up, and when he goes to reach for the medical papers and begins to talk of his claustrophobic condition, the officer in a disinterested and mostly “give-me-a-break” tone says “Just put on the seatbelt.” In the remake, the Bridges character proceeds to do just that: he bucks up, and buckles up. Here, even the madness of the crazy man is not to be taken too seriously. The space of inner turmoil? — give me a break. Just be normal, please. Let’s keep things above board — no inner nonsense to muck things up. Here, the law itself, the principle of language and societal norm, demands that the self blend itself away into the normal, and, in the remake, it does. Further nails in the coffin: in the spirit of the prime-time American television sitcom, the death of human subjectivity has been spoken.