Huppert (left) plays a retired piano teacher suddenly confronted with living in an empty house. Photograph from Widow Movie, LLC and Showbox
Culture Movies

Review: If you want to see a master class in staging a breakdown, watch ‘Greta’

This film from the Crying Game director starts intriguingly, and then just devolves into a garden variety stalker thriller. But then it stars the amazing Isabelle Huppert.
Andrew Paredes | Apr 13 2019

Directed by Neil Jordan

Starring Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe

Ominous music swells over the numerous co-producers’ logos. As the camera follows the back of Isabelle Huppert as she leaves a New York subway train, then the back of Chloë Grace Moretz as she waits tables at an upscale Manhattan restaurant, the portentous music seamlessly elides into Julie London’s silky voice singing “Where Are You?” It all feels very sophisticated, and as Neil Jordan’s name comes up, cinephiles can be forgiven for rubbing their hands together in anticipation of a nail-biter as twisty and smart as the director’s game-changing gender-bender thriller The Crying Game.

Moretz plays a New York transplant from Boston mourning the death of her mother. Photograph from Widow Movie, LLC and Showbox

 

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Not so fast. After that intriguing setup, Greta quickly settles into the routines of a garden-variety stalker thriller. Moretz plays Frances McCullen, a New York transplant from Boston still mourning the death of her mother. While her rich roommate Erica (the appealingly feisty Maika Monroe) tries to coax her out of her sadness, Frances finds a handbag (ladylike in its boxiness, with a golden clasp over green snakeskin— symbolism via props!) in the subway and dutifully tracks down its owner. That owner turns out to be Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a retired piano teacher who moans that her cramped carriage house feels so empty after the death of her husband and the relocation to Paris of her beloved daughter to study music. In Greta, Frances finds a mother figure to lean on, and soon the two are cooking risotto and adopting a dog. All seems fine…until Frances discovers a cabinet full of boxy, green-snakeskin handbags, and quickly realizes the trap she has fallen into.

Borrowing from Fatal Attraction here, nodding to Single White Female there. Photograph from Widow Movie, LLC and Showbox

Greta takes no twisty turns from there; it only becomes more and more preposterous. You can almost feel director Jordan and co-writer Ray Wright grasping at a pseudo-feminist message somewhere—is there empowerment in a naïve female wising up, or equal-opportunity irony in having her assaulter be female instead of male? Maybe these two male filmmakers could have used a female perspective to provide their story with depth and clarity. Instead, they skim the surface of their characters’ motivations, and get right down to the business of going bonkers, borrowing from Fatal Attraction here, nodding to Single White Female there, and paying homage to Brian De Palma everywhere.

And yet, Huppert owns Greta. Recognizing that the script gives her and Moretz nowhere to go, the venerable French actress opts to floor the accelerator. Any self-respecting movie fan who reads the words “Isabelle Huppert” and “piano teacher” in the same sentence will feel a frisson of impending doom. Greta possesses none of The Piano Teacher’s dramatic rigor, but what it does have in common with Michael Haneke’s character-driven tour de force is Huppert’s gorgeous sense of how to stage a breakdown. At one point, Huppert does a demented ballet as she murders a character, and her inscrutable expression only amplifies the insanity. Huppert is the only actress I know whose mask-like features and icy remoteness are strangely suited for camp.

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Huppert almost—almost—saves this inexplicable blip in Jordan’s filmography. But as Greta devolves from its promising start to sadism and body horror, it is best summed up by a line Huppert herself delivers. Bursting unannounced into her prey’s place of work, swirling a swallow of Pinot noir in her mouth, Huppert deadpans to Moretz: “Like you, it promises a lot and then disappoints.” That is Greta in a nutshell.