Van Warmerdam’s black comedy Emma Blank adaptation of his play
by Natasha Senjanovic
09/09/2009 - Alex van Warmerdam’s gleefully perverse The Last Days of Emma Blank surprised and won over audiences at its international premiere in Venice Days today. A renaissance man, van Warmerdam not only wrote and directed this film adaptation of one of his plays, he also appears in it and scored the music.
In the black comedy, the terminally ill Emma Blank (Marlies Heuer) drives her household staff to madness in her isolated home on the Dutch seaside. However, it’s all a game to get Emma’s supposed inheritance. Not only is it possible that Emma isn’t really sick, the staff are not who they seem either.
The film mixes comedy, drama, horror and noir, with the music offering yet another genre: the spaghetti western. The whimsical, Sergio Leone-esque bass lines and whistling add another level to the tongue-in-cheek drama. The director explains his inspiration for the story: “I’ve always been interested in people who serve other people. There is something inherently funny about their situation.”
Van Warmerdam (who plays Theo, the “family” dog, in the film) eliminated 80% of the play’s dialogue for the film version, which he claims he wrote because he didn’t want to spend the usual two years it takes him to create an entirely new project. When asked if Emma Blank represents family or social dysfunction on a more universal level, he denied it. “I don’t think in symbolic terms or double meanings, I make my films in innocence,” he told audiences. “The dark, cruel but funny comedy is simply the key in which I sing best.”
The tight, strong cast is very much in on the director’s game though perhaps Annet Malherbe stands out most as the cook, Bella. She admits she had an advantage over the others, however. “I was the only one to have also done the play. I knew my character very well because I’d performed her about 95 times,” she said. Also the director’s wife, Malherbe appears in all his work, and said the two worked very closely in casting the rest of the actors.
The crisp photography by Tom Erisman is another character in its own right, as is Emma’s house, which was built for the film. The editing by Job Terburg helps play on the elements of surprise and comedy, especially in introducing the true identities of the characters.
The €2.7m Emma Blank was produced by the director’s brother, Mark van Warmerdam, through Graniet Film, with Belgium’s La Parti co-producing. Fortissimo Films sold the film during its scriptwriting phase to Portugal, Russia and Singapore, and will continue negotiations with other interested territories at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival.