Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz amp up the camp in Neil Jordan’s offbeat thriller.
Is Greta a camp masterpiece, or just clumsy and poorly-made? That’s the conversation that’s likely to crop up around the release of Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan‘s (Interview with the Vampire, The Crying Game) latest thriller, a cat-and-mouse game of mother-daughter madness that will either elicit disbelieving giggles or eye-rolling disengagement. It’s got a great pedigree – Isabelle Huppert‘s one of our greatest living actresses, and Chloë Grace Moretz has carved out an interesting niche as the waifish Final Girl in a host of arthouse-minded horror films (specifically the remakes of Suspiria and Carrie). Plus, Jordan’s command of the inherent horrors of our contemporary age, filtered through a thin veneer of the fantastical, feels right at home for this kind of mommy-stalker story. Depending on your tolerance for archness and camp, Greta will either frustrate or absolutely delight.
Moretz plays Frances McCullen, a fresh-faced Midwestern gal making her way in the Big Apple with the help of a rich daddy (Colm Feore) and a far-too-swanky apartment she shares with her outgoing yoga-rat roommate Erica (Maika Monroe). However, she hasn’t spent enough time in New York City to know not to touch strange objects on the subway – what if it was a bomb, for God’s sake? – as Frances picks up a designer purse left on a seat to return it to its rightful owner. Said owner is Greta Hideg (Huppert), a sweet but eccentric Frenchwoman who lives alone in her mysterious house hidden away on some forgotten street. She loves piano as much as she misses her husband, and she laments that her daughter left home to study in Paris. Moved by Greta’s plight, and implicitly seeking a replacement for her own long-lost mother, Frances strikes up a friendship with her. (Hearing about these events, Erica tells Frances what we’re all thinking: “This city’s gonna eat you alive.”)
If you’ve seen the trailers, fear not – Jordan (and co-writer Ray Wright) dump poor Frances into Greta’s horrific twist pretty quickly. You see, Greta’s absolutely, almost cartoonishly crazy, planting purses all around the city so that innocent young twentysomethings can bring them back to her and she can manipulate them into a needy, clingy mother-daughter relationship. What happens, then, when her mark figures out the game? In Frances’ case, it means Greta stalking her to her work, her apartment, and even harassing Erica, Greta’s presence in her life becoming increasingly invasive and omnipresent.
It’s here that Greta‘s first two acts can be the most confusing for viewers not armed for Jordan’s deliciously arch tone. Greta’s initial stalking is filmed like an SNL Digital Short, composer Javier Navarrete signaling every appearance of Greta from around corners and across streets with the most overwrought musical stings. It happens so frequently that you start laughing, and then you realize that was Jordan’s intention all along. Moments like Greta impetuously spitting gum in Frances’ hair, or her ninja-like invisibility as she keeps sending Frances pictures of Erica as she stalks her, are wig-snatchingly campy; just try not to guffaw with increasing admiration at every instance of Huppert’s head bobbing out of frame every time Erica turns back to see if Greta is following her. The world Jordan has crafted for this crazy two-hander is one in which restraining orders are basically impossible to enforce, and you have to serve your stalker when she shows up at your restaurant – after all, she has a reservation.
Depending on your tolerance for archness and camp, Greta will either frustrate or absolutely delight.
This slow build culminates in Jordan turning the screws even deeper into baroque, full-tilt schlock, and Huppert is absolutely along for the ride. Greta‘s final act, in which the unhinged Greta finally has Frances right where she wants her, is a delectable combination of Psycho and Room where events happen so fast and furious that you’ll wonder whether or not what you’re watching is a dream. (Jordan plays with this wonderfully in a lovely double-fakeout late in the film.) It’s here that the supporting characters get more of a chance to shine; Monroe has some fun tracking down Greta to save her friend, and Stephen Rea‘s investigator character is so superfluous and swiftly-dispatched that it becomes a joke in and of itself.
And then there’s Greta herself, Huppert having the time of her life balancing Joan Crawford and Norman Bates in her portrayal of a deeply sick woman who collects prospective daughters like pets. Nothing about Greta makes sense – what little we get of her real life comes from a friend of Greta’s daughter (played by Zawe Ashton), who offers more red flags to add to the pile. But Huppert leans into the inherent silliness of the role, her voice quivering with feigned concern at every jab or dancing absentmindedly around her house even after her bloodiest of crimes. Moretz, for her part, is emoting for two, her hysterical Final Girl vibe bouncing against Huppert’s chilling aloofness. Together, the two make for a scintillating pair to watch, even as (or perhaps because) the twists and turns of their relationship grow ever more ridiculous.
By the time the wild ride that is Greta is over, one could be forgiven for wanting to watch it a second time. It’s easy to underestimate Jordan’s command of tone since the otherwise serious and sumptuous thriller (DP Seamus McGarvey does his usual finely-textured work) reads as clumsy and shallow at times. But by the time Greta makes her bigger moves and all of Jordan’s chess pieces move into the endgame, Greta becomes a rollicking good time. Just go into it remembering that Jordan wants you to laugh at all of its contrivances and gasp at its little moments of visual invention, and you should find room to explore its many pleasures.