Nothing says “I love you” quite like incessant texting and unwanted gifts from your just-hatched new relationship with a psychopathic stalker. From the mother of all obsessed lunatics, Fatal Attraction, to the Netflix binge-worthy You, a date with uncensored emotional blackmail is just the thing to spice up a lonely Friday night. Now, in Neil Jordan’s just-released Greta, starring venerable French actress Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz, the mania centers around lonely New York transplants and the fragile, fraught bonds between mothers and daughters.
“I thought, if I can explore these characters, explore the obsession, the fact this was between two women,” director Jordan has said, “it made the obsessional nature of the relationship more interesting. It was less about sexuality or sexual dominance. It was more about maternal need, a need for friendship, and the need for company basically.”
To quote the director’s own oeuvre, it’s the company of wolves that the young Frances McCullen (Moretz) is keeping, unbeknownst at first, when she returns a lost handbag to Greta Hideg (Huppert).
But it’s a simple, ingenious set-up here, as Frances soon discovers: Greta has planted handbags across the city to lure unsuspecting, gullible young women to her. Greta befriends them, then turns on them when her maternal overtures are rebuffed. (The film never explains why the people returning the handbags are always women of a vulnerable age. If a man in his 50s shows up at her doorstep doing a good deed, does Greta just dose him, kill him and drag him to the basement?)
For a psychological thriller, Greta is surprisingly short on resonant psychology. It’s a script convenience that Frances has recently lost her own mother and that Greta — though she’s lying, of course — is missing her own daughter whom, we’re told, is going to a conservatory in France. And you can’t help but wonder if the movie on the screen is one that these talented filmmakers signed up to do.
Jordan had more to say about male and female obsession (not to mention sexuality) in his modern take on Red Riding Hood in 1985’s The Company of Wolves. (Greta can be read as a modern successor to that film, though it’s not in the same class.) And his masterful The Crying Game has no equal when it comes to the levels, and limits, of fixation.
Greta itself is a muddle. Moretz, lovely as she is, seems particularly wasted in her role as the innocent American. And both Colm Feore, as her dad, and Stephen Rea, as the private investigator he hires to track her down when she goes missing, must have really enjoyed cashing their checks for the brief amount of screen time they’re given.
All that said, I found the movie — for all its flaws — entertaining.
Huppert, a smart and oh-so-serious actress, really seems to be enjoying herself here. (It helps that she’s creepy enough in repose to elicit one of the biggest scares in the film just by showing up, unannounced, to Frances’s waitressing job.) And as Frances’s worried, rich, white roommate Erica, Maika Monroe makes you sit up and take notice. She turns a cliché — the aimless party girl trend-chasing for life’s meaning — into a tenacious character. (She’s on to Greta long before Frances, and she doesn’t back down.)
Jordan doesn’t tease out the possibilities in the material. As opposed to the projects he’s worked on for passion, he feels like a hired gun here; a solid, somewhat uninspired commercial director. If he had pushed farther into a Gothic, unhinged ambience, he may have created a camp classic. (For some reason, I kept thinking of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? while watching the film.)
If he had gone deeper into the wounds of the two women, he might have left us with some resonant emotional fallout to ponder. Instead, we get the same old tropes: Will the lunatic get away with it? Will the naïve heroine escape?
Still, even an audience as unimpressed with the film as the one I saw it with can still whoop and holler and applaud (and, yes, laugh) despite their misgivings about the material — and that’s the mark of someone who, even when he goes off the rails, still fundamentally knows what he’s doing.
Greta, directed by Neil Jordan and starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Isabelle Huppert, is in theaters now.
Stills from Greta by Patrick Redmond / Focus Features