You (young thing) help out the mature lady on the train who has absent-mindedly left her quality-level purse behind her. Your best friend advises you that: a. it might be a bomb, so why did you pick it up?; and b. let’s just take out the money, throw it away, and buy us some fun. Both fairly sensible, and certainly typical, reactions of an urbanite, particularly in the New York of today. Instead, you return the bag, contents intact, to the woman. She’s nice – and a little vulnerable. Slowly but surely, you become friends. Until stalker-ish behavior ensues …
This is the premise of Neil Jordan’s Greta. It’s well-trodden intimacy thriller territory, harking back to the early 1990s era of Single White Female (1992) and many others. Except, this time, playing on an age difference, and on a certain cultural exoticism: Greta is played by Isabelle Huppert as a seemingly French expatriate who also occasionally (and, for a while, inexplicably) utters some Hungarian words, taps out an occasional classical tune on her upright piano, and surrounds herself (in her post-family existence) with homely dolls and trinkets. She appreciates this young companion, Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz from I Love You, Daddy ), for concert and museum dates and whatnot – so where’s the harm?
But there’s plenty of harm on the way – at first some unnerving psychological harassment, of the kind that’s impossible to prosecute – and then eventually escalating to another level, with a touch of grand guignol. The alarm bells start ringing when Frances inadvertently stumbles upon Greta’s hidden collection of many purses, with diverse female names on Post-it tags stuck to them …
In Jordan’s career, Greta is, on many levels, the companion-piece to his curious American production, The Brave One (2007) starring Jodie Foster. The films share a thriller-genre format; the New York setting; a fascination with the darker shades of female psychology; and a fix on the latest technologies as an integral part of the texture of everyday life. As Cristina Álvarez López wrote in her review of The Brave One (my free translation):
Female vigilantes – wronged women who take the law into their own hands, killing vicious criminals – are rare in cinema. Like the heroine of Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45, Erica (Foster) has a personal motivation: she saw her lover killed by a gang of vicious street toughs. So, armed with a gun and empowered by vengeful passion, she goes out into the night, hunting the scum. Meanwhile, she is tracked by wily detective Mercer (Terrence Howard).
Some thematic elements are familiar to the genre: Erica’s moral ambiguity; the for-and-against reactions of people around her; and the theme of law and its limits. Less familiar is Erica’s vocation: a radio-artist endlessly philosophising about the “vanishing city” of New York, to which director Neil Jordan gives too much emphasis.
While Álvarez López praises, in her sum-up, the Ferraran-style “scenes of Erica in action in shops and trains”, she faults the “ponderous, pretentious voice-over musings of Erica about life in the city”.
Both films are intriguing, but neither really clicks into place as it could or should. If anything, Greta plays less on narrative and moral ambiguity than its predecessor. In The Brave One, we were constantly encouraged to adopt a vacillating position: is Erica justified, out of control, even inhuman? Different characters reflected the various available options: is she our superhero-saviour, or just another violent criminal? And, at least in its finale, the “theme of law and limits” was vividly dramatised in action. Where Erica’s profession added a cool, off-beat veneer akin to the digital art making depicted in, say, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumière (2003), Greta stays more with the common-garden distraction and intrigue provided by Facebook, Instagram and email accessed on mobile phones.
One longs for a further, complicating twist of the intersubjective relationship here: not just Greta’s mad possessiveness, but also something more, deeper and possibly perverse to Frances’ complicit playing-along – beyond being the proverbial sucker without an even break, or a young woman with dead-mommy issues (as her pal Erica [Maika Monroe] – another Erica! – explicitly suggests). And personally, I would have liked more of the Brian De Palma-ish thriller tactics as elaborated in Raising Cain (1992), from that earlier intimacy thriller cycle – trap-door dreams-within-dreams and other bold, pyrotechnical switches. Jordan, as ever, seems a bit shy, or too guarded, to really exploit such pyrotechnics. In Greta, that’s a pity.
© Adrian Martin May 2019