De Laatste Dagen van Emma Blank

Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam has already been responsible for several films: Abel, De Noorderlingen (The Northeners), De Jurk (The Dress), Kleine Teun (Little Tony), Grimm and Ober (Waiter). Compared to its predecessors, De Laatste Dagen van Emma Blank (The last days of Emma Blank) sticks out because of its long title. However, the director’s typical touch has not been altered: this film too displays a wit so dry it’s waterproof.

Oddly enough, this film has been met with a lot of criticism because of its artificial setting. Surely this sort of argument doesn’t make sense: we’re talking about a film by van Warmerdam, whose De Noorderlingen featured a prefab village in the 1950s where a woman is suddenly idolised for her religious gifts, whose Ober featured a waiter who started complaining to the screenplay writer about his role in the film… van Warmerdam’s movie thrive on tiptoeing on the line between realism and surrealism.

This film introduces us to Emma Blank, an eccentric woman who is on the verge of dying… or so she claims. Blank doesn’t look that ill but insists of being taken care of by her staff, a butler, a cook, a maid, a gardener and the doglike Theo (played by director van Warmerdam himself). That’s right, there’s a man, who may or may not be mentally handicapped, pretending to be a dog. Early on in the film, we learn that Emma’s butler is actually her husband, but just how the other people in the house are connected to each other isn’t clear. Nor is it obvious why they choose to remain in the same house as the tyrannic Emma Blank. It’s all a mystery, much like Emma’s fatal disease.

What I like most about this film, apart from its black comedy, is that most of the film is set in or near Emma’s house. This – as I mentioned before, in my review of the director’s previous film, Ober – is van Warmerdam’s forte: give the man a location the characters can hardly escape from and he gives you a piece of gold. Emma Blank does organize the occasional outing, but it’s immediately obvious that staying home would’ve been a better option.
Also, most of the characters are not exactly innocent lambs, so you don’t mind too much that a lot of bad stuff happens to them. Sure, most of them can be forgiven for their deeds, but only one character (the gardener) is not that morally abject as most of the others.

I guess that’s what a lot of people find off-putting, the lack of people you can empathize with. To me, the idea of watching people suffering from living inside a prison they wanted to be in can be the base of a good black comedy. To me, De laatste dagen van Emma Blank also proves Alex van Warmerdam is very much an auteur director, someone with a typical and personal style. This may not be the most accessible of his movies but to fans of his work it should be a treat.

8/10 (and the n°5 in my Top 10 of 2009)

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