A she-devil holed up in a house in the Dutch dunes waits impatiently for death in “The Last Days of Emma Blank.” The bitter irony of Dutch scribe-helmer-thesp Alex van Warmerdam’s latest is that Emma’s servants are possibly even more eager to see their boss-from-hell expire. More generally off-kilter than deadpan, this technically impressive ensembler from one of the Netherlands’ few recognizable names suffers from an uneven tone and did just OK biz at home last May. International premiere at Venice will kick off the usual round of fests, with a possible afterlife in ancillary.
“The Last Days of Emma Blank” is a reworked version of van Warmerdam’s 1999 play “Adel Blank.” When that work premiered, the Dutch multihyphenate called his eponymous protag “Hitler in a dress,” but that is an inadequate description. Indeed, Mrs. Blank is a domestic tyrant and always impeccably dressed, and there are plenty of references to Nazism (including a priceless gag involving a moustache). But the way in which van Warmerdam has constructed his screenplay makes it impossible for the character to personify evil incarnate. Emma is evil simply because she gets away with it.
The crux of “Emma Blank” is that the servants — nitpicky butler Haneveld (Gene Bervoets); portly, no-nonsense cook Bella (Annet Malherbe); inexperienced chamber maid Gonnie (Eva van de Wijdeven); and randy handyman Meijer (Gijs Naber) — put up with Emma’s egregious lack of manners because they believe they will receive part of her inheritance. And to hear from Emma herself, the day she’ll croak isn’t too far off, so her servants swallow her increasingly ridiculous, often chuckle-inducing demands.
As is often the case in van Warmerdam’s universe, nothing is what it seems. But whereas in his previous outings (“Waiter,” “Little Tony”) his slightly askew version of the real world felt coherent and somehow possible, in “Emma Blank,” the mix of non sequiturs, deadpan comedy, more sincere drama and just plain wacky occurrences never quite gels.
The weirdest addition here is the character of Theo, played by van Warmerdam himself, who functions as the household dog, often humping his boss’s leg and having to be taken outside to relieve himself. Rather than providing comic relief, the character unbalances the otherwise semi-serious tone.
Though the mood wavers, the ensemble acting is uniformly strong. Young van de Wijdeven, especially, is so convincing as the haughty maid, it’s hard to believe the actress also played white-trash Desie in local B.O. hit “Dunya and Desie.”
Though unmistakably a van Warmerdam film — not least because of his presence onscreen — “Emma Blank” seems infused with southern-Gothic elements, as if the helmer had been on a David Gordon Green binge before reworking his play. This feeling is reinforced by van Warmerdam’s own score, which blends folksy guitar and harmonica, and the design for Emma’s house, with its white-ledged windows and tarred walls. The rest of the tech package, led by Tom Erisman’s impressive widescreen lensing, is slick.