One of the more fascinating pleasures of mainstream cinema is watching a unique filmmaker working within familiar genre material. Sometimes this intersection of commercial interest and distinctive artistic personality results in great movie experiences (think Joe Wright, a purveyor of historical romances, directing 2011's action thriller Hanna); sometimes they result in good genre fare (think Stanley Kubrick's gun-for-hire handling of the historical epic Spartacus); and sometimes they result in outright disaster (think David Lynch's 1984 misfire Dune or Robert Altman's bizarre 1980 live-action cartoon Popeye). Neil Jordan's Greta falls somewhere between the first and second categories: neither an exceptional film nor an overly familiar retread, it is a largely entertaining riff on seen-it-a-million-times Fatal Attraction tropes that are elevated by Jordan's long-standing fascinating with folklore, myth, and historical trauma.
Jordan, the director of the art-horror films The Company of Wolves (1984), Interview With the Vampire (1994), and In Dreams (1999), the genre- (and gender-) upending thriller The Crying Game (1992), and the gentle fantasy Ondine (2007), has always been a mercurial artist, moving in and around different genres and tones while maintaining a firm commitment to the weight of history and the tenuous links between past and present. Greta, with its culture clash between Old World melancholy and Millennial angst offers a perfect inroad for Jordan to elevate its otherwise rote thriller mechanics (and to remind us of what a good director of suspense and terror he can be).
Chlo Grace Moretz stars as Frances McCullen, a recent college graduate who is treading water in New York City while trying to find a course for her life. Luckily, she has a wealthy best friend named Erica (Maika Monroe) who offers an enormous downtown loft for her to share, and she makes ends meet by working as a waitress at a chic Manhattan restaurant. She is not, however, a callous and cynical twentysomething like her trust-fund best friend, but rather a thoughtful and kind soul who is still struggling with the recent death of her mother and trying to navigate a rocky relationship with her widowed father (Colm Feore).
The narrative is set in motion in the opening scene when Frances discovers a green pocketbook left on a subway and, instead of keeping it or discarding it or simply leaving it there, decides to track down the owner and return it. That simple act of conscious kindness is the seed from which grows a new relationship with the pocketbook's owner, a sixty-ish French widow named Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). At first, Frances's relationship with Greta appears to be a balm for both of their psychic wounds, providing Frances with a doting and loving surrogate mother figure and Greta with a receptive new surrogate daughter and all-around companion.
However, it isn't long before the relationship takes a darker turn; Frances tries to extricate herself from the relationship for good reason, only to find that Greta is an obsessive who won't let it go. Cue standard scenes of stalking, relentless phone calls and text messages, and barely concealed threats of violence that soon explode from the psychological into the physical. Along the way the film morphs from interpersonal drama, to suspenseful thriller, to all-out horror (you can feel Jordan channeling his inner Hitchcock, as he relies heavily on threat and tension, although there is a fantastically grisly moment in which a character's finger is sliced off with a cookie cutter).
Greta works largely on the dynamic interplay between Frances, the genial, open-faced naf, and Greta, the monster in elegant disguise. The burning question is just how monstrous will Greta turn out to be, and Isabelle Huppert digs deep a well of ominous mannerisms and icy stares that runs right up to the edge of Joan Crawford-style camp without plummeting over. She is, in a word, terrifying, not just because of the threat she poses to Frances, but because she reminds us of how innocuous exteriors can often mask the worst of horrors. Huppert uses a veil of cultured, Old World dignity to mask her inner depravity (which is simultaneously horrifying and strangely pathetic), and it isn't hard to see why someone like Frances would be drawn to it. The film as a whole doesn't harbor too many surprises, although it eventually winds its way to a climax that is largely unexpected and, in hindsight, quite brilliantly disguised. It's enough to help us forgive the film's more rote moments, which accumulate, but never overwhelm Jordan's clear investment in the underlying culture clash that makes the genre material feel, if not exactly new, at least freshly invigorating.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Focus Features
Overall Rating: (3)
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