Tale as Old as Time
2018 / Ireland, USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Neil Jordan / Opened in select cities on March 1, 2019by:
Neil Jordan’s Greta is unlikely to replicate the sensation of his breakout neo-noir, The Crying Game (1992). That feature helped usher in a wave of independently produced films going quasi-mainstream, with its modest success and cultural cachet predicated on a much-publicized twist that would (rightfully) not play out so well these days. What surrounded that reveal was an amalgamation of Out of the Past (1947) and Vertigo (1958), a tale of a death-haunted man whose violent past interrupts a newfound obsession. Exquisitely performed and written, it earned Jordan an Original Screenplay Oscar in 1993.
Compared to Jordan’s calling-card film, there’s nothing quite so fresh about Greta, a routine thriller only elevated by some taut craftsmanship and a central performance from everyone’s favorite working European actress, Isabelle Huppert. She plays the titular middle-aged, disinclined loner, a French piano teacher (Huppert’s second portrayal of that profession after her incendiary turn in Michael Haneke’s aptly titled 2011 film The Piano Teacher). Greta meets the young and plucky Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) when she returns the older woman’s lost clutch.
Frances is new to New York City, having just moved from Boston and into a Manhattan loft with her uninhibited best friend, Erica (Maika Monroe, lead of It Follows ). Her roomie chastises the naive Frances for even picking up the purse in the first place, suggesting packages left behind in NYC subways are best dealt with by bomb squads. Erica is suspicious of Greta, sight unseen, due to her interest in Frances. Even when flurries of late-night text messages from Greta begin appearing on her phone, Frances is still endeared to the lonely older woman, having just lost her own mother. She identifies with the familial absences in Greta’s life, and the two begin to form a tight-knit bond.
That bond, however, turns tenuous after a wine-fueled dinner in Greta’s apartment during which Frances discovers a cupboard filled to the brim with duplicate handbags – each affixed with a sticky note listing the names and phone numbers of various women. Greta veers quickly into Single White Female (1992) territory – largely and thankfully foregoing the problematic killer-lesbian trope of that film – by mounting increasingly nerve-jangling set pieces of Greta’s psychotic obsession with Frances. Voicemails and text messages begin to accumulate as Frances avoids her would-be stalker, triggering, in a highlight of the film, Greta to go full table-flipping Teresa Giudice in the middle of the restaurant where Frances works.
In these escalations, Jordan’s film is at its best, exemplifying the economy of the 1980s and 1990s Hollywood thrillers to which his film is indebted, albeit with a classical approach. But Greta also has a tongue planted firmly in cheek, especially when it comes to its titular character’s behavior and Huppert’s performance. Axial cuts of Greta lurking outside the restaurant elicit more laughs than trembles, and her twinkle-toed ballet just before she performs a particularly dastardly act is presented with gleeful abandon: Huppert hasn’t had this much fun with a role since David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004).
Meanwhile, her counterpart, Moretz, is as thuddingly performative as ever. The actor, always prone to back-of-the-house actorly tics and dead line readings, has rarely elevated herself beyond her contemporaries in terms of craft, but filmmakers nevertheless persist in curiously choosing her for high-profile projects. Only Olivier Assayas and Luca Guadagnino have used her to their benefit by casting her as a bratty movie star in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and a zombie in Suspiria (2018), respectively.
Because of this, Greta lacks an audience proxy, forcing the viewer to both root for and be repelled by its villain. Maybe that’s Jordan and co-screenwriter Ray Wright’s purpose, as the mix of horror and comedy points to them working in a satirical mode, justifying a Hitchcockian complicity in audience identification with bad behavior. However, other than cheap shots at Millennials – Erica’s trend-hopping is a running gag straight out of a Boomer’s brain – what’s actually being satirized is unclear. If anything, Greta and Frances’ programming toward honoring a nuclear-family unit is what causes their downfall, but those motivations feel necessary only as plot device rather than as threads sewing this pastiche together.
Instead, Greta is best looked at as a modern Grimm Brothers fairy-tale update, and the third-act “twist” reveals this probable inspiration. The eponymous stalker becomes the Big Bad Wolf or, more appropriately, the witch of “Hansel and Gretel” (which sounds quite a bit like “Frances and Greta”). The film’s glossy veneer certainly supports the idea by luring its audience into a twisted web through color-coded fantasy, but those oft-told tales still resonate because of their didactic purpose. Greta unfortunately lacks one.