GretaReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/01/19 10:31:28
(Worth A Look)
“Greta” is essentially the art house version of one of those relatively low-budget and decidedly by-the-numbers thrillers that a studio like Screen Gems grinds out on a regular basis and puts out during slow periods on the release calendar for a quick profit at the box-office before going on to permanent rotation on basic cable. This, I hasten to add, is more of an observation than a criticism and I enjoyed the whole thing on some basic level, especially when it hits the point where all involved evidently decided to just lean into the ridiculousness rather than continue the struggle to take it seriously. That said, watching the enormously talented people going through their oftentimes generic paces here is a lot like going to a recital given by a master pianist and discovering that the program is 90 minutes of scales topped by a rendition of “Chopsticks”—their work is impeccable but you can’t help but wish that they could have combined on something a little more challenging.Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Frances, an impossibly sweet-natured and naive college graduate from Boston who has just moved to New York City and is living in a huge apartment—one so big that the screenplay is actually forced to explain how she could possibly be living there on her salary as a waitress—with her best friend, Erica (Maika Monroe). One night, while taking the subway home after work, Frances discovers a purse that someone has left behind on a seat. In these times, an abandoned purse might raise any number of red flags but the good-hearted Frances picks it up and, when she is unable to turn it into lost and found, she takes it home with the plan of getting it back to its owner. This baffles Erica, who instead suggests using the cash inside for a spa day, but Frances is determined and the next day finds herself on the doorstep of its owner, an older French woman named Greta Hideg who gratefully invites her in for tea. Now this may sound nice and innocent enough but when that door opens and it is revealed that Greta is being played by none other than Isabelle Huppert, the great French actress who is famous for her oftentimes dark and disturbing roles, those with a working familiarity of her past career will no doubt begin to immediately suspect that something about the whole situation is not quite right.
Despite their age difference, Frances and Greta become fast friends, bonding in part over their mutual sense of loneliness—Frances recently lost her mother while the widowed Greta misses her own daughter, who is currently living abroad. The voice of cynical reason, Erica warns Frances that meeting someone one day and helping them shop for a dog the next is just kind of strange but Frances dismisses her concerns, even when Greta becomes a little more insistent with her phone calls and invitations. One night, while having dinner at Greta’s, Frances makes a discovery that suggests that the missing purse that brought them together was not just a quirk of fate after all. She gets out of there easily enough and elects to never see Greta again, much to Erica’s relief. Greta, for her part, has some differing views on the subject and starts filling Frances’s phone with messages and standing outside the restaurant where she works while staring inside. Before long, it seems as if Greta is everywhere but Frances is unable to do anything to stop her—even when she turns up in the restaurant as a customer and causes a massive scene that ends with her being dragged away in an ambulance, Frances isn’t even notified when she is released. It is pretty much at this point that “Greta,” both the film and the character, starts going completely wacko in ways that I will leave for you to discover on your own.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, “Greta” might have turned out to be little more than a trashy fusion of such female-centric thrillers as “Single White Female” and the legendarily tasteless “Widows.” Instead, it was directed by the acclaimed Neil Jordan and while it is still all that, he handles the material in such a skillful manner that he helps to elevate it—as much as possible—from its potboiler origins. The screenplay, which was co-written by Jordan and Ray Wright, is an oftentimes haphazard construct that too often requires the characters to act in a highly illogical manner in order to move from one plot pint to the next. At the same time, however, that are moments when they seem to be having knowing fun with the cliches of the genre—the reveal of the not-entirely-coincidental nature of Frances’s discovery of Greta’s purse come much earlier in the proceedings than expected and there is a very witty and effective inversion of the tired trope where something bizarre happens and it turns out that it was all a dream. From the point of the restaurant confrontation, where Greta tells Frances that the chianti is a lot like her, “promises a lot and then disappoints,” the story takes a definite turn for the weird and Jordan finds just the right tone for the increasingly lurid proceedings, turning the entire story into a contemporary urban version of a Grimms’ fairy tale. The film may lack the artistry of Jordan’s finest works, such as “The Company of Wolves,” “The Crying Game” or the great and vastly underrated “The Butcher Boy” (which is almost an inversion of this film, the more I think about it), but it is certainly the most energetic thing that he has done in quite a while.
The best thing about “Greta”—the thing that ultimately keep the entire venture chugging along even as it threatens to violently derail—is the performance by Isabelle Huppert in the title role. She is incontestably one of the greatest actresses working in the world today and to see her turning up in a lurid potboiler like this is undeniably odd, roughly the equivalent of Meryl Streep popping up in the upcoming “Pet Sematary” redo. Essentially, she does before the camera what Jordan does behind it—she embraces the loopiness of the material instead of condescending to it—and while her turn here will not cause anyone to forget her past mesmerizing performances, she is a lot of fun to watch. She infuses Greta with a compellingly oddball version of maternal grace and presence that can slip into infantile rage and neediness in an instant and when she finally goes over into full madness, she finds just the right comic touch for the increasingly levels of weirdness. (There is a moment when she busts out a brief balletic dance move that is so unexpected and yet so fitting for the character that you almost want to applaud it.) By comparison, co-stars Moretz and Monroe, who are no slouches as actresses themselves, are relegated to playing the straight women while Huppert gets to chew the scenery but both are quite good in their parts as well, Monroe in especially good at breathing life into a character that is essentially little more than a plot device. And yes, Jordan regal Stephen Rea turns up as well in the late innings and manages to add yet another touch of strangeness to the proceedings.Look, “Greta” is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination and if it had been placed in the hands of a different creative team, there is an excellent chance that I might have dismissed it as silly and nonsensical trash. It is silly and nonsensical trash but it is trash done with a certain wit and style that helps it plow through some of the rougher patches and contains a performance by Isabelle Huppert that shows that even her B game as an actress puts the best efforts of most of her peers to shame. Straight-laced moviegoers may be appalled by “Greta” but those with a taste for unabashedly lurid goofiness should find it to be the guiltiest of pleasures.
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