Like one of those YouTube videos that recasts Love Actually or Mrs. Doubtfire as horror movies — but in reverse — Greta‘s first 20 minutes feel like a trick: Could this actually be the heartwarming story of a grieving girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who finds solace in her new friendship with a middle-aged woman (Isabelle Huppert) just as lonely as she is?
Or, as the trailer suggests, is it the gruesome fairytale of an innocent lured by scheming witch who hides her wickedness behind a French accent and a fetching collection of cardigans? The answer is a little bit of both, really, and then something else: a loony psychodrama so steeped in winking, twinkly-toed camp that it almost (almost!) escapes the leaden tropes of the genre.
It all begins when Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz), freshly graduated from Smith and still mourning the death of her mother, finds an abandoned handbag on the subway; boxy and ladylike, its shiny clasp set in embossed leather. (Symbolism, they name is green snakeskin.) She wants to return the purse to its rightful owner because, she says earnestly, “Where I come from, that’s what we do.” “Okay, this is Manhattan,” her best friend (Maika Monroe) retorts. “You find a bag, you call a bomb squad.”
Instead, Frances makes her way to the Brooklyn townhouse where Greta (Isabelle Huppert) offers her effusive gratitude, then tea; somehow, they leave with each other’s phone numbers and the promise to go dog-shopping for Greta, whose home is too empty since her husband died and her daughter went off to a music conservatory in Paris. Greta seems lovely; old-world elegant, gracious and kind. Spoiler: She’s a lunatic. And like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, she will not be ignored.
Writer-director Neil Jordan has an Academy Award for 1992’s The Crying Game (its star, Stephen Rea, even drops in for a cameo) but he’s not exactly trawling in Oscar-y waters here. Greta is essentially a gleeful B-movie tricked out with A-level talent, which doesn’t mean it isn’t fun — at least until the whole thing essentially runs out of narrative road, and any semblance of new ideas.
Even with two such gifted actresses at his disposal, once Jordan begins to bang the gong of Greta’s madness, there just aren’t many places for them both to go; Moretz mostly sucks in air, terrified, while Huppert is left with her one note to pluck: high C, for Crazy.
The title role especially feels well below the pay grade of an actress who has spent so many years mastering the art of the Undone Woman onscreen (see: The Piano Teacher, Elle). But her Greta turns out to be the movie’s saving grace, too; a presence so fantastically bonkers — and so aware of the story’s mounting midnight-movie kitsch — that it hardly matters if you’ve seen it all done before, and better. B–