The Last Days Of Emma Blank (De laatste dagen van Emma Blank)

Netherlands (2009) Dir. Alex van Warmerdam

Bosses seem to take the purview of employment to ludicrous levels in what they ask of their staff because “they are paying them” whilst acting as a law unto themselves, then can’t understand why they are not very popular.

Living in her seaside mansion, Emma Blank (Marlies Heuer) is dying and has promised her staff a share of her inheritance when she passes, which is apparently soon. But, Emma is determined to make the staff earn every single penny and burdens them with the most absurd and often demeaning demands to keep them in check and ensure they are genuinely worthy of her money.

However, the small staff are in fact Emma’s family – the tetchy footman is her estranged husband Haneveld (Gene Bervoets), young maid Gonnie (Eva van de Wijdeven) is her daughter, cook Bella (Annet Malherbe) is her sister, whose son Meier (Gijs Naber) is the handyman. Most egregious of all, Emma’s brother Leo (Alex van Warmerdam) is forced to pretend to be the family dog!

Alex van Warmerdam is not a director I am familiar with but he appears to have a loyal following among hardcore cineastes as a purveyor of black comedies, in which he usually writes and stars in, along with his wife Annet Malherbe. The Last Days Of Emma Blank is an adaptation of a 1999 stage play by van Warmerdam entitled Adel Blank, with the tag line Hitler In A Dress.

This is probably a harsh description of the eponymous madam (but it does lead to a nice visual gag later on) whose bizarre whims are driving her family spare, though to be fair to Emma she hasn’t started any global conflicts, just a domestic one. On first inspection, this appears to be a satire on the abuse of power, which it is, but goes on to reveals so much about greed and entitlement through family ties the more we get to know this dysfunctional unit.   

It is evident from the opening that Gonnie is the least enthusiastic participant in this odd charade, approaching each duty with a resentful and weary mien beyond her disgruntled body language. Haneveld is the most committed to his role which implies he is trying to give Emma the last days she wants – except he and Bella are having an affair which Emma knows about but insists on no sexual contact.

Elsewhere, Meier is in love with Gonnie which is not only unreciprocated but both Bella and Haneveld would rather it didn’t happen at all. Besides, Gonnie has met a man at the beach (Marwan Kenzari) who she sneaks off to meet for intimate encounters. Earlier, I suggested Haneveld was the most committed performer in this ruse but one could argue for Leo deserving this dubious honour – he doesn’t speak, drinks out of a bowl, eats leftovers, and is even forced to relieve himself outside just like a dog.

Going to such extreme lengths for a slice of inheritance makes one wonder just how much is at stake to make this demeaning performance worthwhile. Emma, either in full awareness or maybe too far gone to notice, pushes her luck with some of her demands, such as making Haneveld wear a moustache (a specific moustache or there is no running gag) or odd food choices to be prepared in particular ways.

She is also to be referred to as “madam” and no mention of their true relationships is to be made. As much as this could have been the plot for The Comic Strip Presents… back in the day, van Warmerdam has everyone play it dead straight to make the illusion two-fold for Emma and the audience. If it weren’t for Leo’s deadpan canine antics – like trying to hump Emma’s leg or dropping a dead bird in her lap – the surrealism of the situation wouldn’t be so obvious.

One vital question that is not answered is the terminal condition that Emma has. The script does imply through her extravagant ploy that maybe it is in her head – Gonnie regularly questions the validity of her mother’s debilitating health – whilst there is that nagging feeling maybe this delusion is a symptom of this mystery ailment. The caveat to this is whether the family are humouring her out of compassion which becomes clearer in the second half.

Most of the comedy in this film is subtle, the main exception being Leo whose dog role is more sardonic than first thought, so anyone else new to van Warmerdam might also be wondering what his reputation is built on. By the end of the film, we have a pretty good idea of his taste for the subversive and absurd, like many of his Nordic contemporaries, but not so dense, at least judging by this outing.

What proves to be the cleverest aspect of the script is the way the layers of the façade of the family are stripped away beyond the role playing, revealing a pernicious and self-centred gene pool of corrupt DNA that thrives on greed, power, and selfishness. The phrase “made for each other” is apposite and whilst the specifics are different for each individual, nobody in this clan can claim to be any better than the other in their actions and rationale in going along with Emma’s scheme.

Like their characters, the cast commit themselves to their roles with a total sense of duty to make this absurd premise work, presumably as most of them were in the stage play as well. Marlies Heuer as Emma was my personal standout, both horrific in her dominion over the family yet managing to elicit some sympathy when the revolt begins. Credit also to van Warmerdam for taking the most demeaning role or himself.

The Last Days Of Emma Blank is a very dry, edgy, yet thought provoking film and an obvious acquired taste, but an interesting primer to van Warmerdam and his work for newbies like myself. Families, eh?