Elevate Difference

The Last Days of Emma Blank

Emma Blank believes death is eminent. Surrounded by a sulky if compliant staff in her large home near the Dutch dunes, she shouts absurd orders in between bemoaning her fate. “Don’t worry,” she assures her impatient employees. “Before winter, I’ll be dead.”

Emma’s character is frustratingly distempered. Seemingly with no idea what is good for her, she demands an eel for breakfast, then violently vomits while her staff stands around shaking their heads with annoyance. It’s clear no one in the house has any sympathy for her condition, whatever mysterious ailment it may be. Meijer, the houseboy, expresses his hatred by mowing a swastika into the front yard. In cyclical fashion, Emma returns their collective disdain, at one point exclaiming, “It’s as if I’m surrounded by a bunch of toddlers with brain damage! Do your work with devotion, with a smile. Is that too much to ask?”

For much of the film, it is difficult to discern the relationship between Emma and her staff. Gonnie could be her daughter, or it could be a case of Emma’s misplaced affection. Meijer could be Gonnie’s cousin, or her boyfriend. In the beginning, Haneveld appears to be Emma’s husband, lying beside her in bed when she requests and adhering a fake moustache to his upper lip when she demands that he do so. Yet Bella, who appears to be the head of the waitstaff, also makes snide comments to Haneveld. “I’m not giving you another hand job for a while,” she threatens. Are they having an affair? What’s really going on here? How do these people know each other, and what the hell does it all mean?

Most alarming and the one truly humorous aspect of the film, Theo (played by director van Warmerdam), a fully-grown man, acts the part of the household dog, alternately bringing in dead peasants, humping Emma’s chair, and shitting in the yard. Does he think he’s a dog? Is this poor casting? Is it some sort of allegory about the plight of enslaved humans?

The central plot device—if, like me, you are unable to decipher what’s happening before it is actually revealed—happens roughly an hour into the film. With less than thirty minutes left to tie up loose ends, including Emma’s inevitable demise, the film rushes to an end and leaves several major storylines intentionally up in the air. Will the hired help inherit the house? Will their relationships survive in the wake of their time with their she-devil employer?

In Dutch with English subtitles, this truly bizarre, dark, situational comedy isn’t for everyone; frankly, I find it a stretch to label The Last Days of Emma Blank a comedy at all. But if you like feeling ill at ease, a bit discombobulated, or even thoroughly annoyed by what people will do for money, this bewilderingly strange film is for you.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, July 19th 2010