By Isaac Feldberg
A B-movie par excellence, Greta’s the kind of unhinged and yet fiendishly well-calibrated genre fare that rarely gets afforded the attentions of a director as accomplished as Neil Jordan.
Greta, directed by Neil Jordan. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, AMC Boston Common 19, and AMC South Bay Center.
There’s something to be said for great directors punching down, putting some elb-auteur grease into elevating B-movie material to a richer, riper level, without sacrificing all that juicy pulp inside.
Greta is Neil Jordan’s trashiest film by a long stretch; coming from the director of The Crying Game and Michael Collins (not to mention 25 years after his sensational Interview with the Vampire), it’s an admitted thrill to learn his nutty streak remains this intact.
A B-movie par excellence, Greta’s the kind of unhinged and yet fiendishly well-calibrated genre fare that rarely gets afforded the attentions of a director as accomplished as Jordan. But his involvement is the whole point. It’s his answer to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, to Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, an acclaimed director riffing on a simple setup and throwing restraint to the wayside in its execution, affixing all the bells and whistles best excised from less indulgent works — but that directors this good know they’re capable of polishing to an unusually high gloss.
(The other end of the spectrum, of course, is Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake, less indulgent than scared of its own shadow, too daunted to be as dauntless as the material demanded. To be fair, it was a pretty big shadow.)
In any case, Jordan’s Greta lands closer to those first two films, even if it has far less humming under the hood than Scorsese’s meditation on violence and consequences. What it offers instead is incomparable French film icon Isabelle Huppert, continuing the late-stage career arc into arch psychopathy that’s already earned her one Oscar nomination (for Paul Verhoeven’s twisted Elle).
Her character here is even more deliciously demented, a scenery-devouring stalker who’s also cinema’s best answer yet as to why we should never enable our neighborhood Francophiles (one amusing in-joke is that her character’s accent is affected, though Huppert herself is as French as snails in garlic). It’s best to go into a movie like Greta knowing as little as possible, but much of what makes the movie’s rabbit-stuffed pot boil over so satisfyingly is Huppert’s gleefully all-in performance, which gradually ratchets up from eccentric to electric.
She plays Greta Hideg, an elegant widow whose Brooklyn nest is filled only with Liszt piano music and cobwebbed memories; there was once a husband and a dog, and her now-grown daughter is away studying in Paris, or so she says. When Greta leaves a chic leather handbag behind on a New York subway seat, it’s rescued, fatefully, by Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz), a recent Boston transplant who’s grieving her mother and thinks nothing of returning the bag to its owner.
Frances sees in Greta another lost soul; looking back with that unknowable glint in her eyes, Greta sees something else entirely. They make an unlikely pair, but a friendship develops, Frances coaxing Greta out of her seemingly self-imposed exile and back into the real world.
They even adopt a dog together (to whom no even lightly seasoned thriller aficionado would dare get attached).
“I’m like chewing gum,” says Frances early on, when Greta notes that she’ll soon be forgotten by her new friend. “I tend to stick around.” It’s the kind of light-touch reassurance any wide-eyed ingenue wouldn’t think twice about providing to a lonely older woman; but when Frances starts to realize there’s something very wrong with Greta, it starts to feel more like a death sentence.
If you think you know where this is all going, you’re probably right. After all, it hasn’t been that long since Hollywood’s fin de siècle stalker craze, and Jordan is often consciously concerned with evoking the best of them, from Single White Female to Fatal Attraction (there’s also a basement scene reminiscient of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle).
He makes some attempts to update the subgenre, gamely incorporating smartphones in Greta’s creepy pursuit of both Frances and her street-smart roommate Erica (It Follows star Maika Monroe, bringing welcome moxie to a character more commonly written as a lemming). But there are only so many ways these familiar pieces fit together. Sooner or later, there’ll be a chase, a knife, a creepy basement, and a hapless private eye (Jordan mainstay Stephen Rea) who’s a goner as soon as he tries to stand up to Huppert’s Mommie Dearest Energy (MDE).
But no matter how familiar the tune, there’s always a shivery joy to hearing the sounds of an antique-music-box thriller like this, those tuned steel teeth plucked and plinked by the steady turning of a well-worn, pin-studded cylinder. Greta’s staged like a fairy tale, sometimes so much so as to recall the wistfully romantic New York of Carol — in which another uncertain bond between Old World grand dame and New World upstart takes a markedly different turn — and this sometimes makes the film feel florid when it should be torrid.
But, elsewhere, Jordan seems fully behind his characters’ descent into kooky, psychosexual camp. In a faultless scene at the restaurant where Frances works, Greta sips wine and spews venom before flipping a table in a sudden rage, all whilst Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” plays in the background. Later, Greta stalks Erica through city streets, giving the It Follows actress a visible enemy for once, albeit an equally lethal one. There’s even a meme-ready moment where Greta confronts Frances outside her apartment, stares her quarry down, and spits gum in her hair.
Greta makes ample use of Huppert’s waxlike features, and they’re often juxtaposed with Moretz’s, ever in frantic motion. The film itself never weaves a web quite intricate enough to seem worthy of this scheming spider, nor her chosen fly; the actresses deserve a narrative that goes further, faster, and that doesn’t lean into such hackneyed tropes in its third act. Still, everyone’s committed, especially Huppert, and when an actress of such renown is let this loopily loose, the results feel as guiltily satiating as pairing popcorn with Puligny-Montrachet.
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston. Though often preoccupied by his on-going quest to prove that Baby Driver is a Drive prequel, he always finds time to appreciate the finer things in life, like Liam Neeson.