What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Mommie Dearest and Sunset Boulevard. There’s a glorious freedom to the psycho-biddy genre. Playing deranged dames whose sanity has been shattered by loneliness, iconic actresses like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Gloria Swanson are given cart blanche to go wild in tales of female rage that are scandalous, grotesque, and often unapologetically campy. Writer/director Neil Jordan (Interview With A Vampire, The Crying Game) extends this grand opportunity to Isabelle Huppert with Greta. The French luminary makes a feast of its tale of female fury, chewing the scenery with a gruesome relish, then licking her chops, leaving us craving more.
Written by Neil Jordan and Ray Wright, Greta centers on the unusual friendship that quickly develops between a lonely widow and a naïve young woman, new to New York City. Boston-native and recent college grad Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) is seeking to build a life of her own in the Tribeca loft she shares with her roommate Erica (It Follows’ Maika Monroe), a trust-funded party girl who lives for late night drinks, morning yoga, and asparagus juice colonics. But having recently lost her mother, Frances hungers for a friendship that’s more maternal. So when a posh purse lost on the subway leads her to the quaint Brooklyn carriage house of Greta Hideg (Huppert), this grief-rattled girl is easily charmed.
At first, Greta is warm and welcoming, offering tea along with compliments and cozy pet names that sound so pretty in her buttery French accent. But before long, Frances uncovers a secret so alarming that she immediately ghosts Greta. But Greta won’t be ignored. A barrage of text messages and voicemails turn to light stalking turn to hysterical confrontations involving spit gum, chucked wine glasses, and toppled tables. Frances appeals to the police for help, but things go from sketchy to downright nightmarish in the blink of an eye. This daughter-figure will learn the punishment for turning her back on this bad mother.
Huppert is perfection as Greta. From her first frame, there’s something too sharp in her smile for the audience to trust her as Frances does. This disconnect sparks suspense and a wicked delight as we pick up clues to which our innocent protagonist is gleefully blind. As she catches on, Greta transforms. Her motherly warmth vanishes, replaced by icy stares, a sharp tongue, and limbs that lash out abruptly and savagely. But Greta’s final form is Huppert’s finest work. As pleased with herself as the cat that caught the canary, Greta spins into a menacing mania where “nice” things are turned unnerving. Smiles hide sinister secrets. A cup of coffee cannot be trusted. Classical music covers muffled screams. Her dancing about in stockinged feet is a frenzy both frightening and funny. She is a whirling dervish of grief and madness. Greta is worth seeing for Huppert alone. Which is a good thing, because Moretz lets her down as a dance partner.
There’s a weird war at the center of Greta, and I don’t mean the one between its battling women. The film is tonally a mess, clumsily leaping from straight-faced thriller to campy horror and back again. While Huppert embraces the B-movie vibe with a dazzling bravado, Moretz favors a stilted performance style that feels better suited to earnestly creepy ’90s thrillers like Single White Female. For much of the movie, she’s wide-eyed and whimpering either in terror or tenderness, never reaching near Huppert’s histrionics. This jarring collision in tone had me wondering if Greta knew what kind of movie it was trying to be. Was it aware of its deliciously trashy appeal or not? Were these dueling tones meant to represent the state of minds of its clashing lead characters? Or did Moretz just fall short the film’s camp energy?
The more I reflect, the more I fear it’s the latter. There are lines in the film too outrageous for Jordan not to see the sick humor in this twisted thriller, like when a startled waitress asks if a frothing Greta is “speaking Klingon,” or when Erica sings the praises of the healing power of colonics, declaring, “Jason Largo used to be dyslexic, and now he can say the alphabet backwards!” Then there’s the music. The score by Javier Navarrete is alive with sinister strings that shriek hysterically as Greta glares at Frances through the window of her workplace, or while this wily widow is cyber-stalking her through her Facebook photos. But the biggest clue that Moretz has made a major misstep is Monroe’s performance.
Whether breezily chatting about hook-ups or sternly warning of shady behavior, Monroe brings a playful verve to her performance that winks at the fun within all this fucked-up-ness. Plus, she is at the center of the film’s most thrilling sequence. Greta chases Erica through midtown Manhattan, but in a uniquely menacing way. She texts Frances photos of her unsuspecting friend at a bar. Panicked, Frances calls her roommate to warn her. More photos will follow. As a helpless Frances stays on the line, Erica races through back alleys, down subway stairs, and into oncoming traffic to dodge the threat she cannot see, but knows is near. Monroe brings urgency, vibrancy, and a smirking glee to her every scene. By the end, it’s clear she has outshined Moretz, proving the partner that Huppert’s Greta truly deserved.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com
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