TIFF18 Review: GRETA – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Even for those of us bewildered by the overarching unevenness of his filmography, Neil Jordan still forces the most hardened sceptic to admit to at least one bona fide masterpiece in his oeuvre, be it The Company of Wolves, Interview with the Vampire, The Crying Game, or Michael Collins. Greta, it is fair to say, is not likely to rank highly in the director’s list of great works. And yet, based on two words alone, we might pause to seriously consider it: those words are, simply, “Isabelle Huppert”.

At its worst, Greta is Exhibit A that Huppert’s presence alone is enough to elevate a fairly mediocre film to the level of – if not ‘brilliance’ exactly – then at least to that of a joyful, gleefully excessive wild ride. Greta worth the price of entry for Huppert alone, but only just.

The film follows Chloë Grace Moretz in typical ingenue mode as Frances, a naïve young woman who has just moved to New York City where she works as a waitress and lives in a fashionable loft with her friend Erica (Maika Monroe). Mourning the death of her mother to whom she was extremely close, a seemingly chance encounter with Huppert’s lonely title character seems at first a perfect match, each filling the void of an absent loved one. As Frances soon discovers, however, Greta is far from the sweet, harmless mother-figure she first appeared to be.

Directed and co-written by Jordan, the film seems to consciously rehash the basic premise of Barbet Schoeder’s Single White Female with a hagsploitation twist, rendering one of the women much, much older than the other and thus adding a monstrous mother aspect to the familiar plot.

Evoking the latter work of Classical Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Shelley Winters, while the word “hagsploitation” or its variants – grand dame guignol films, psychobiddy movies – might have once been dismissed for the seeming regressive politics of their labels, in recent years have been increasingly embraced as a subgeneric terrain where hugely talented actors deemed by the industry to be supposedly ‘beyond their prime’ were given rich, fun, excessive roles that – while undeniably monstrous – boasted much more of a dramatic pulse than kindly, feeble grandmothers who knitted in rocking chairs.

While Huppert’s eponymous character certainly riffs on these earlier predecessors from films such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, What’s The Matter With Helen?, and Whoever Slew Aunty Roo?, it’s perhaps stating the obvious that unlike the women who played these delightfully evil characters in the 1960s and 1970s, Huppert is far from seeking to resurrect her career. On the back of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle most recently alone she has only continued to consolidate herself professionally as the go-to actor for strong women roles for characters over the age of 50.

Greta is, therefore, less a hagsploitation film than it is a pastiche – in theory at least. This in itself is hardly new, with Gionata Zarantonello’s 2012 film The Butterfly Room with horror icon Barbara Steele a frankly far more successful reimagining of the trope. But to be fair, there’s a certain amount of leeway that we can give Greta based on the sheer unambiguous delight that Huppert takes in playing her thoroughly over-the-top stalker character; she is clearly having fun playing the part, and there is no denying that this spirit is contagious.

Where the film is weaker, sadly, is the flimsiness of everything surrounding her. Moritz’s performance is serviceable, Monroe’s almost entirely forgettable, but it is the film’s broader lack of wit and playfulness and a sense of going through the motions that lets it down. While Isabelle Huppert is undeniably her usual majestic self – delightful and delighted – Greta is ultimately an very ordinary film that centres around one genuinely extraordinary performance.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).