Few actors do “weird” as well as Isabelle Huppert. Whether she is playing a murderess, a swindler, a chilly business woman, an uptight teacher, or a rape victim who turns the tables, she remains aloof and self-contained. No matter what happens to her character in the course of a film she quickly recaptures her sangfroid.
When Huppert displays a perfectly calm expression it’s not a mask but a sign that something is bubbling away beneath the surface. She often gives the impression of playing a role within a role. Her persona can be attractive and sophisticated, but also slightly unnerving.
Neil Jordan has teased out that quality in Greta, a movie that is more chiller than thriller. Huppert plays a lonely widow living by herself in New York, who befriends a much younger woman. The quasi mother-daughter relationship begins warmly but comes to a shuddering halt when the young woman discovers a secret (literally) in a closet. From that point the story grows increasingly tense and strange.
If Huppert is perfect for the part of Greta, Chloë Grace Moretz is equally well chosen for the role of Frances, the victim. With her blonde hair, green eyes and chubby cheeks, Moretz is the personification of innocent youth waiting to be despoiled – a scream queen in the making.
Greta is a film for our times, encouraging social mistrust and paranoia. It begins with Frances finding a handbag in the subway and returning it to the owner – in itself a rather unlikely act because most honest people would take a lost bag to the nearest station attendant, presuming they didn’t think it was a bomb. Frances makes an attempt to take the bag to lost property, but upon finding the office is closed she decides to deliver it by hand.
Greta, who lives in the New York equivalent of a witch’s gingerbread cottage, invites Frances to stay for coffee, and tells her the sad story of her life. Her husband is dead, and her daughter, a talented pianist, is studying in Paris. Frances has her own issues, as she is still grieving for her mother who died a year ago. It seems the two women are destined to be companions.
This is not the view of Frances’s street-wise flatmate, Erica (Maika Monroe), who can’t believe her friend is becoming fixated on an “old lady” – Ugh! – and counsels that Frances’s mother substitute is probably a weirdo anyway. This may sound flip and insensitive, but it turns out that Erica has understated the situation: Greta is seriously odd. When Frances decides she doesn’t want to see her new friend again, she finds Greta pursuing her all over town.
Greta may not fit the usually template of a stalker but her relentless attitude (and a little dramatic music) gives Frances and Erica the creeps. The NYPD are no help at all, suggesting that Frances should just ignore her and she’ll go away. We know this is not the case. We know that things are bound to get much, much worse.
In fact there is little about this movie that we can’t figure out in advance. The story has the inevitability of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. It’s a genre that has held an appeal for Neil Jordan ever since his second film, The Company of Wolves (1984), which reworked the story of Red Riding Hood. Greta is a contemporary version of the wicked witch who lures trusting children into her clutches. She may not want to eat them but she’s eager to smother her victims with tough love. There are vague sexual undercurrents to her obsessive behaviour but these are left unexplored.
Greta is a great film for MacGuffins – Alfred Hitchcock’s code word for a completely gratuitous or implausible device intended solely to keep the plot moving in a particular direction. The screenplay, written by Jordan and Ray Wright, is a feast of MacGuffins, but if one starts to think about all the things that don’t add up it will ruin one’s experience of a movie that invites us to go with the flow and not ask too many questions.
If Greta succeeds it’s largely down to Huppert’s committed performance as a psychopath, with Moretz as the perfect complement – a girl who is too nice for her own good. One neat touch is the way Jordan uses the mobile phone as an instrument of terror. At the beginning Greta claims she hardly knows how to use a mobile, but when things get nasty she begins to send endless text messages and photos, each of them an implicit threat. As the story progresses we realise that nothing Greta originally told Frances is true, with her expertise with the phone acting as a symbol of this deception.
This may be where Greta’s best claims to being a horror movie lie, because someone who will send a hundred text messages in a row is truly terrifying proposition. I just wish they’d stop sitting next to me in the cinema.
Directed by Neil Jordan
Written by Ray Wright and Neal Jordan
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea, Zawe Ashton
Ireland/USA, rated MA 15+, 98 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 March, 2019