Greta meets expectations with a twisted grin

Movie review: Greta

Isabelle Huppert hones her skills as psychotic menopausal menace in Greta, Neil Jordan’s creepy mother-daughter thriller that makes kindness and compassion a modern liability.

Greta

3.5/5

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Stephen Rea, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore

Directed by: Neil Jordan

Running time: 1 hr 39 mins

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

Every era comes up with cautionary tales to address ambient threats, and in a way, immunize them through exposure. The Bible offered up horror stories about the faithless and unrepentant, early German fairy tales scolded the misbehaved and imaginative, and American film noir navigated issues of loyalty during wartime. Traditional values were celebrated, and the sinful were — for the most part — punished.

Things have changed in the past few decades. Now, the biggest social liability is plain old kindness. Indeed, something that would have been celebrated not so long ago as heroic and strong is now depicted as a personality flaw that puts you at risk.

Consider the story of young Frances McAllen (Chloe Grace-Moretz), a kid from small-town USA who lands in the big city with her best friend after college. Frances is bright, pretty and yes, kind. So when she finds a lady’s handbag on the subway — filled with makeup, pills, money and an identification card — she does the right thing: She finds the woman, calls her, and makes an effort to return the purse in person.

Things have changed in the past few decades. Now, the biggest social liability is plain old kindness. Indeed, something that would have been celebrated not so long ago as heroic and strong is now depicted as a personality flaw that puts you at risk.

Her city-wise roommate Erica (Maika Monroe) thinks she’s crazy. She believes the best path forward is to give themselves a spa day with the cash, and toss the rest. After all, it’s Manhattan, and you can’t trust anyone — even someone who seems like the perfect victim.

As viewers, chances are we’re right there with Frances. We think she should do the morally upright thing and return the bag. And, thank goodness, that’s exactly what she does. She heads over to some remote brick house hidden in an alley, and spends a day getting to know Greta (Isabelle Huppert).

An older woman who still grieves her dead husband, Greta spends her days playing piano and going to church. Petite and freckle-faced, she’s graced with a delicate French accent and a chic taste in clothes.

Having just lost her own mother, Frances floods with tender feelings in Greta’s presence. The two kindle a mother-daughter kind of friendship, but that causes friction between Frances and Erica. The worldly and wily Erica thinks the whole thing is a little weird. She urges Frances to exercise caution, to not be so nice, but Frances can’t help being kind. It’s who she is.

Before long, she’s regretting her good deed. One night at dinner, she opens a cupboard filled with handbags just like the one she found. Every one of them has a name on it, and a phone number. Could Greta be a psychopath who uses purses like a wriggling pink worm?

Director Neil Jordan has a natural talent for creating thrillers with a difference, as evidenced by his breakout effort, The Crying Game. Greta hearkens back to that seminal 1992 effort because it pivots on what you might call “mistaken identity.”

Here, it’s all about what we assume about Greta. French actress and former sex symbol Isabelle Huppert is currently enjoying a second career playing mentally unstable menopausal women. Since earning an Oscar nomination in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle in 2016, Huppert has turned her pixie features into a porcelain repository of cryptic evil. And she’s scary, even if she barely stands five feet tall.

French actress and former sex symbol Isabelle Huppert is currently enjoying a second career playing mentally unstable menopausal women. Since earning an Oscar nomination in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle in 2016, Huppert has turned her pixie features into a porcelain repository of cryptic evil. And she’s scary, even if she barely stands five feet tall.

In fact, the smaller and less physically imposing she is, the more threatening she becomes because it makes the psychological hold that much more potent. She’s a tiny little person, but she emanates a domineering power that owes an arched eyebrow to Joan Crawford, and an unhinged unpredictability to Bette Davis.

At one point, we watch her dance around in bare feet like a drunken ballerina. At another, we hear her delicate Parisian accent suddenly turn into a guttural Hungarian. These moments are creepier than the scenes of her manipulating Frances because they hang in space. They aren’t telling a story in that moment, they’re just there.

Because Jordan’s style brings emotional and psychological depth to every scene, there’s a certain creepy joy in just watching it all unfold — especially because Huppert is so gleefully eerie, and pushes the whole cinematic wheelchair to the edge of the stairs.

Because Jordan’s style brings emotional and psychological depth to every scene, there’s a certain creepy joy in just watching it all unfold — especially because Huppert is so gleefully eerie, and pushes the whole cinematic wheelchair to the edge of the stairs.

She does funny things with her mouth, pursing it, and moving her tongue. She twists her natural beauty into an aging gargoyle who looks at Grace-Moretz’s Frances with the eyes of a hungry predator. The ingenue does everything she has to do, tapping into Jodie Foster’s turn as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs with a hint of Kimmy Schmidt pluck.

She’s the nice girl we like and worry about: a hapless victim. Maika Monroe has a slightly meatier role, despite less screen time. She’s the streetwise and selfish best friend who isn’t so nice and isn’t so trusting. Back in the day, she would have been the first to turn up with an axe lodged in her cranium — punished for her sass and cynicism.

Jordan follows the modern stream and turns her into a hardened hero. The actual plot is minimal, but he doesn’t really string it out. He throws the psychosis at us early, then forces us to squirm for the next hour through a variety of devices, including a dog, but I can’t get into that. It’s too upsetting. Because it is largely genre without much deviation, Greta may not be one of Jordan’s best films, but it does feel like a solid return from the artist who broke out with The Crying Game. It’s also a suitable, if disturbing, celebration of cynicism, distrust and deep scrutiny of others as key survival tools in an increasingly psychotic society. It also screams: Your only source of help may be a sense of humour.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, March 1, 2019

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Review: Greta

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Summary

3.5Score

Neil Jordan concocts a taut little thriller with minimal ingredients — and an almost miniature villain. French actress and former sex symbol Isabelle Huppert is enjoying a second career playing a mentally unstable woman in her menopausal years. Since earning an Oscar nomination in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle in 2016, Huppert has turned her pixie features and freckled face into a porcelain repository of cryptic evil. And she’s scary, even if she barely stands five feet tall. In Greta, Jordan casts her as a stylish matron who leaves a handbag on the subway. When a young woman, relatively new to New York, finds it — she makes an effort to return it in person. Having just lost her own mother, Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz) floods with tender feelings in Greta’s presence. The two kindle a mother-daughter kind of friendship, until Frances discovers a cupboard full of purses — just like the one she found on the subway — and realizes Greta may well be a psychotic looking to ease her loneliness any way she can. Because Jordan’s style brings emotional and psychological depth to every scene, there’s a certain creepy joy in just watching it all unfold — especially because Huppert is so eerie, and pushes this whole cinematic wheelchair to the edge of the stairs. She does funny things with her mouth, pursing it and moving her tongue. She twists her natural beauty into an aging gargoyle, looking at Grace-Moretz with the eyes of a hungry predator. It may not be one of Jordan’s best films, but it does feel like an unsettling return of the artist who broke out with The Crying Game. -- Katherine Monk

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