Review: Greta

Review: Greta

by Alan Grant
article from Friday 10, May, 2019

FOR A FILM of impressive pedigree look no further thanGreta. It has Neil Jordan, the director of the Oscar-winning The Crying Game and the generation-defining Interview with the Vampire who also counts 1997’s significantly underrated The Butcher Boy among his credits. The two central characters are played by French cinema legend Isabelle Huppert and Chloe Grace Moretz, whose continuing rising star since Kick Ass and Kick Ass 2, also very much underappreciated, is proof that mainstream cinema can and still does reward genuine talent and charisma.

However, even with this impressive box of parts from which it has to work, Greta has received a lukewarm reception from critics and also underperformed by $1.4 million in its opening week. In particular, reviewers have criticised it for being silly or even camp and some have even gone on to attack its script for not making sense and depending on coincidence and plot contrivance to tell its story.

The plot of Greta centres on Frances McCullen, a young women living a cartoonishly millennial existence in New York City. She has a job in a restaurant, rides the Subway, buys coffee, and hangs out with her best pal and roommate Erica (Maika Monroe) in their sitcom-sized loft apartment. When Frances, characterised as modern-day ingénue, finds a lost handbag, she returns it to its owner – the titular Greta (Isabelle Huppert). The two develop and unlikely friendship that deteriorates quickly as Greta becomes obsessed with Frances to the point where her motives and actions become that of an increasingly unhinged stalker and eventually become even worse than that.

In my view, Greta works in two very distinct ways, of which one is more apparently than the other. On the surface, Moretz and Huppert are very strong in their roles. Moretz has an uncanny ability to portray sincere and honest naivety in a way that would be irritating or frustrating if left to a less qualified actor. As bizarre as it may sound, she reminds me of a Die Hard-era Bruce Willis in that she has the same kind of naturally hangdog expression and inherently trusting and trustworthy demeanour that lends itself to this kind of role.

Huppert too draws on her own vast skillset to force a huge and dominating personality out of her tiny frame. Her grasp of movement, tone, and timing go together to create a character that could have easily gone full pantomime villain but doesn’t – she is scary, impressive, and looks right in the part.

In fact, all three main characters, including Monroe’s sassy and spoiled best pal, who gets her own unexpected character arc to have fun with, are extremely well cast, developed, and characterised and they carry much of the film’s content.

Before moving onto the second, and more complex, way in which Greta is a success – it’s worth pointing out what more eagle-eyed readers will have noticed, that we’re dealing here with a film which not only passes the Bechdel Test (a feminist film critical tool which requires two named female characters to have a conversation about something other than a man) but relegates its male characters to supporting roles and only really allows one of them to interact with its main female cast members in person… and it doesn’t go well for him.

I’m not the critic who will give you a feminist analysis of, well, anything – I’m really neither qualified nor particularly interested in doing so – but for a quasi-mainstream flick like Greta to have an almost exclusively female cast telling a story about the relationship between a group of women that doesn’t involve a comedic gay best pal, an impending wedding, an inexplicably popular a capella group (I’m looking at you Pitch Perfect, now kindly stop existing!) – or any other trope of the chick-flick – is important and worth remarking on, if only to bring it to the attention of those with a more in-depth interest in that aspect of the movies.

Column space is column space, however, and I must return to my original premise – that there is a second and more complex way in which Greta is a success that, to my knowledge, other critics have missed, and that is that it has been classified incorrectly and is therefore judged using inappropriate standards.

It is my contention Greta is actually a gothic horror movie that has been sold and advertised as a thriller and has been measured by those standards.Which is a shame because as a gothic horror flick – it’s a scintillating success!

This is where the rest of the movie press that has covered Greta has been correct in the specific but wrong in terms of the big picture. If Greta had been intended to be a psychological, or any other kind of, thriller then it would be a failure.

There are character decisions – for instance, even when she is alarmed to the point of calling the police, Frances returns to Greta’s home – that make no sense, there are character threads, including Frances’ relationship with her dad that go nowhere, and plot points that feel as if they are only there to move the plot along and which otherwise are completely unbelievable. In particular, there’s a moment in which Greta follows Frances’ roommate through New York in an attempt to intimidate her while sending Frances pictures on her phone. During this sequence, Erica continually looks over her shoulder and cannot see a woman taking pictures mere feet behind her – none of it makes any sense.

That is to say – none of it makes any sense in a thriller but it makes perfect sense in a gothic horror film.

Upon a deeper reading, Greta’s true colours as a gothic horror film become very much apparent. The twisted reasoning and plot contrivances go together to create the kind of logic that one experiences in a nightmare – in which you and only you are aware of the threat you’re facing and are powerless to fight. 

The themes of decay, aging, obsession, and entrapment that the film reveals as its main ideas are also clear signposts of where it is heading and what it self-identifies as. Moreover, the uncomfortably close cinematography, alarming use of an inverted dream sequence, and Huppert’s creepy clockwork movements and facial expression are further calling cards of the gothic genre to which Greta clearly belongs. Hell, even the use of a creepy European aesthetic and increasingly morbidity-laden set design, plus the strings heavy classical score that wouldn’t feel out of place reverberating around the walls of the House of Usher, confirm this on Greta’s much-deserved closer inspection. This is a film that rewards a bit of attention and closer inspection.

As if it wasn’t apparent already, Greta is absolutely worth seeing provided that you alter your expectations and treat it as what it is. If you go in expected hyper-realism and dramatic tension based on ‘that could happen to me’ familiarity you will be disappointed but if the macabre, creepy, or sinister are your bag, or even if you’ve ever just woken up in cold sweat from a hideous nightmare in which you were trapped or being followed and, once you’ve calmed down, been even slightly interested in what was about to happen – then Greta will do it for you.

If, however, you’re going to go see Greta, and you absolutely should, then do yourself a favour and do not watch a single trailer because they all contain spoiler level content. This is a bad habit that the movie industry really has to get out of. I suspect it might have caught it from its pals in the video games business who now feel compelled to give away half the game footage ahead of time and while it is now too late for games to get out of this habit, it’s not too late for movies.

So, directors, producers, film execs, and others involved in motion pictures, listen up! Please stop including spoilers of your movies in the trailers that are intended to get me to go see it – it’s really annoying!

But, like I said, if you can avoid trailers and other spoilers – a skill that the modern media consumer should really be well-versed in at this point – and if you can read it correctly, Greta offers a chillingly good experience that stands out amid a horror landscape obsessed with flashy, obvious, body-horror based nonsense.


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