Everyone needs a friend
Who doesn’t have an affinity for the “hag pictures?” That specific sub-genre of films, ushered in by the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” featured established, yet aging, actresses who were given new career life by bringing their talents to a collection of horror films in the 60s and 70s. Besides the aforementioned film’s legendary pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, everyone from Olivia De Havilland, to Barbara Stanwyck, to Shelley Winters, to even Lauren Bacall, took lead roles in films which allowed them to command the stage in stories full of scares and schlock. Also known as “grande dame guignol,” these movies not only ensured these actresses kept working, but also brought them new younger fans who lapped up watching these former golden Hollywood movie queens go for broke as “psycho biddies” in campy, over-the-top productions. It’s a genre which sadly had a short shelf life, thanks mainly to the surge in television, where many of these ladies went to after they got tired of screaming. But it appears that writer/director Neil Jordan is on a mission to resurrect the beloved genre with his own dark 21st century entry into the canon starring one of France’s greatest living actresses playing one of most terrifying characters of her career.
Still reeling from the death of her mother and no clue with what to do with her life, 20-something Francis (Chloe Grace Moretz) has moved to New York City to be roommates with her best friend from college Erica (Maika Monroe) and has taken a job in an upscale Manhattan restaurant with the intent of starting fresh. When she finds a lost green handbag coming home on the subway one evening, she dutifully traces down the owner; an older French woman named Greta (Isabelle Huppert), who thanks Frances profusely for her act of kindness. As the days pass, Frances and Greta become close friends as a suspicious Erica issues the former warnings about getting too close to someone she barely knows. Erica’s suspicions turn out to be true when Francis accidentally discovers a cupboard full of green handbags in Greta’s home; the exact same kind she found on the subway. Soon, Francis finds out that not only is Greta unstable, but that she intends to not let go of her new friend.
In keeping with the tradition of the sort of movies I described earlier, Greta earns the right to be called a camp fest. There are more than enough moments within the film which are so outrageous and larger than life, that audiences cannot help but laugh (good-naturedly) at the movie. Jordan’s skill as a filmmaker here is in the different levels he delivers them in. Some, such as Greta vengefully spitting gum into Frances’s hair, are more on the subtle side. Other scenes mix the maniacal and the surreal such as when a delusional Greta is shown dancing to classical music as if she were a ballerina. The main showpiece of the film however sees Huppert and Jordan going as far as they can in a scene where Greta shows up as a patron at Frances’s restaurant, demanding perfect service and eventually throwing over her entire table and storming after the latter yelling: “She’s gone crazy!” All of the above are moments which could have easily been found in the likes of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Strait Jacket back in the day, but still feel right at home in 2019 thanks to a director who knows the science of mastering such scenes and an actress who is more than capable of delivering them with just the right amount of credibility needed to make it all work. In short, it’s grande dame guignol in the way fans remember it to be that’s taken to a higher plane thanks to the pedigree of all the talent involved.
Yet what really makes Greta work however, is what makes ANY film of this nature work: an intriguing villain. Greta is blessed with such a figure in its title character; a woman who is driven by madness and highly capable of instilling fear and terror before outrightly making life a full-blown nightmare. Whether it’s the character’s cosmopolitan mystique, her lingering beauty or her overall ability to maintain the guise of composure when explosive insanity is lurking within her, anytime Greta is on the screen, tension is in the air. In fact, Greta is so dangerously attractive as a character, that sometimes she doesn’t even need to even be ON the screen in order for her terror to be felt. A sequence which sees an off-screen Greta follow Erica from a party, to an alley, to the subway, to the bus, all the while taking pictures of her and sending them directly to Frances who is on the phone with her friend is heart-pounding largely due to the effect Greta has already imparted on the characters and the audience. Greta is so effective at inspiring fear and genuine suspense just from simply standing across the street, which she does; literally planting herself across the way from Frances’s restaurant and staring straight at her through a pane glass window. The effect is nothing short of chilling. While it would be quick to get lost in the hysterics of the character however, Jordan does right by his movie’s antagonist by subtly offering up a portrait of Greta as an honestly damaged soul not knowing how to deal with the harsh reality life has thrust upon her.
It’s a bit sad to report just how much Moretz fails to shine in her role here. While she’s the film’s primary lead and the story is told almost entirely from her point of view, there’s so little color to the character of Frances, that the actress is left wondering what to do with her. What results is her flattest performance to date as she tries to find something real to play in order to contribute to the otherwise enticing film she finds herself in. Part of the reason Moretz is so disposable is due to the fact that Huppert is just so indespensible. Regardless of what the film has her doing, the actress retains a regalness and overall allure, while also not being afraid to tackle the movie’s more outrageous scenes. Through it all, Huppert maintains a careful hold on Greta’s insanity playing it for real as a genuinely damaged woman no longer in touch with reality. Finally, Monroe shines in her supporting role, taking what would ordinarily be a stereotypical character and injecting her with a freshness that makes all of her scenes worthwhile.
For all the campy suspense and venturing into the grande dame guignol territory that the director indulges in with Greta, Jordan retains one his most key elements as a director; namely his fascination with women. While Jordan has always been noted for being a masterful filmmaker whose able to balance the poetry and the thrilling, it’s his curiosity about the female sex which makes many of his movies so fascinating. Kirsten Dunst’s ageless vampire in Interview with the Vampire, Annette Bening’s haunted wife in In Dreams, Julianne Moore’s married mistress in The End of the Affair and Jodie Foster’s vigilante radio host in The Brave One all represent Jordan’s fascination with the many different sides and layers of womanhood, which he’s more than eager to explore cinematically. Nowhere is this more alive than in Greta. The movie’s title character may be as batty and unhinged as they come, but unlike many of the past “hag films” which came before, Jordan’s main goal is to find out why. It’s that curiosity which makes Greta all the more tragic and provocative of a film to watch, elevating it above it’s delightful genre trappings and placing it among some of the director’s most exciting and telling entries.