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"The Last Days of Emma Blank": a Dark Comedy for Art House Fans

The Last Days of Emma Blank

Emma Blank (Marlies Heuer) is dying, but at least she does it in style. She bides her final days in a beautiful country state, surrounded by forests and separated from a picturesque lake by rolling dunes. The bucolic environs are far from giving her any serenity. Brittle and tense, she seems committed to making her last days hell for everyone around her. Hanevald (Gene Bervoets) is her frazzled butler, putting up with bizarre demands, like growing a mustache, just because she wants to. The cook, Bella (Anne Malherbe), must produce meals in minutes. Chambermaid Gonnie (Eva van de Wijdeven) must do the cleaning while fending off the advances of standoffish handyman Meier (Gijs Naber), and Theo is the dog. Better said, he is a man who behaves like a dog. Is he mad? Or worse yet, not?

Dark Comedy of the Soul

Dutch filmmaker Alex van Wamerdam has a long career as an actor, writer, and director. His films regularly make waves at film festivals, but success with American audiences has eluded him. This is a test case of how streaming can do right by foreign films. “The Last Days of Emma Blank” is a perfect entry point in his filmography, thanks to the wicked sense of humor that permeates the film. He is a masterful narrator. Just check out the initial sequence. Gonnie returns from a swim - a tantalizing promise of the pleasure and freedom that lies outside the limits of Emma’s state - and sets in motion a playful scene that introduces all the characters as they set out to begin their day. The framing, camera movements, and editing hint at their personalities and power relationships.

There is something old-fashioned in the dynamics of servitude played out. It starkly contrasts with the contemporary naturalism of “The Maid” (Sebastian Silva, 2010), also available to stream at Popflick. But there is a reason behind that theatricality, which becomes clear as the relationships between the characters develop and the nature of the film reveals itself. Far from deploying a “gotcha” moment that makes you reevaluate everything you have seen, van Wamerdan piles up a series of subtle reveals that add to a fiendishly clever allegory about a stagnant social order. It may be dying, but escape is not in the cards for everyone.

Emma’s tyrannical proclivities go beyond demanding eel for breakfast. She makes Haneval sleep with her and aims to control the young and lovely Gonnie. And then, there is Theo. The moment you register the man behaves like a dog, and nobody bats an eyelash, the pretension that the movie mirrors our reality begins to slip. He may walk like a man on his two legs but is pushed off a couch because animals are not allowed on the furniture. They take him outside to poop in the yard. In a shocking display of commitment to the role, Theo dry humps people on the leg until Haneval smacks him away. My first reaction was to think it was an absurd gag, mining the contrast of aberrant behavior in a rather conventional reality. I did not expect anybody to address the issue. But something more bizarre and sinister is afoot.

A Director with Skin in the Game

You have to hand it to Wamerdam. He might put his performers through the wringer, but he reserves the most humiliating role for himself. He plays Theo with zealous commitment. The character is the most overt gesture towards absurdist comedy. When his animalistic behavior manifests, you don't know if he is crazy or something more twisted is afoot in the picturesque manor. "The Last Days of Emma Blank" is a spiritual ancestor to movies like "The Lobster" (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015) or "Mother!" (Darren Aronofsky, 2017) but a tad more grounded and less exasperating. I risk scaring you away by invoking Aronofsky's divisive movie - I must confess I loved it to pieces - but fear not. Wamerdan is less keen on frustrating the expectations of the audience. His film is much more straightforward and clear about its agenda as the running time progresses. Every self-respecting movie buff should watch it.

“The Last Days of Emma Blank” is a spiritual ancestor to movies like “The Lobster'' (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015) or “Mother!” (Darren Aronofsky, 2017) but a tad more grounded and less exasperating.

Gonnie occasionally escapes the stifling atmosphere of the house to take long swims. One day, on the beach, she encounters a dark, handsome stranger (Marwan Kenzari). He never speaks his name, but the credits list the character as “Martin.” The young couple engages in a tender affair. He always seems to be there, waiting for her at the lonely beach - another wink at the allegorical animus of the narrative -. Their relationship hints at a better life beyond Emma’s control. But it will not be easy to escape, especially if the victims are complicit in their martyrdom.

If Kenzari looks familiar, it is not by accident. “The Last Days of Emma Blank” was barely the second movie of this young actor who went on to infiltrate Hollywood, playing Jafar in “Aladdin” (2019). He scored showy roles in “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017), “The Old Guard” (2020), “Black Adam” (2022) and “Ghosted” (2023). This silent, symbolic appearance shows the star power the industry would eventually latch on to. You will see him soon in “The Old Guard 2” (Victoria Mahoney, 2024). He is not the only recognizable talent here. I was amazed at finding out that Haneval, the long-suffering butler, is Gene Bervoets, who played doomed Rex, the man obsessed with finding his kidnapped girlfriend in the Art-House phenomenon “The Vanishing” (George Sluizer, 1988).

Such is the lot of the cinephile who gets only occasional exposure to a specific national film industry. A quick scan at IMDB reveals Bervoets has had a busy career in film and television. Alas, exposure in the US market has been elusive since that 80s international hit. Once you realize they are the same person, the experience of watching “The Last Days of Emma Banks” adds another layer of meaning. The incoming demise of the title character pushes mortality to the forefront, but there is a stealth undercurrent of hope. Even if the elders try to choke the new generation or impose their value system on them, there is always the possibility of escaping. But don’t think the passing time sanded down the sharp edges of this black-hearted satire. It’s a timeless, intoxicating work.

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