Students of the tiny grande dame Isabelle Huppert will instantly grasp the possibilities of casting her as a vengeful psychotic. Given a choice between being stalked by the flaming icicle and Freddy Krueger, you’d probably best take your chances with Mr. Fingerblades. Only one of these two could murder you with a sardonic glance at your shoes.
Huppert never quite broke through in Hollywood — there was an effort to make her happen, and it was called Heaven’s Gate — and she falls far short of her potential when forced to speak English, which she does with an accent as thick as crème brûlée. But Huppert at her worst is still pretty good. Not that her latest film is much of anything, except trash. It’s debatable whether Greta is intended to be as ridiculous as it is, but it may appeal to fans of preposterous, catty, campy thrillers.
Huppert’s 120-somethingth film comes to us from Irish writer-director Neil Jordan, who got his start making compelling, critically acclaimed dramas but has long since given up on the Oscar bait. The major movie studios seems to have lost his number after his less-than-convincing effort to establish Jodie Foster as the new Charles Bronson in The Brave One in 2007.
Greta’s least-contrived aspect is the setup, which is so plausible I expect would-be stalkers in the audience will be slapping their foreheads and saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Huppert’s Greta figures she can lure any number of young beauties into her web of deceit by simply leaving a fancy designer handbag containing her I.D. on any subway train in New York City. If you’ve ever seen a pretty young thing of Gotham in close proximity to whatever this week’s purse of the century is, you’ll have already noted the kind of eyeball-popping frenzy that made Odysseus demand to be lashed to the mast so he wouldn’t go chasing Sirens to his doom.
A waitress named Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) finds the handbag-bait on the subway and, discovering the address of its owner inside, takes it to that house, a cute little hideaway that looks nothing like any home I’ve ever seen in New York, but that’s because the film was shot in Dublin. Greta spins a tale of woe that complements Frances’s own life story, and soon the pair are bonding over an adopted dog. Frances lost her mom, and Greta’s daughter lives in Paris, so each finds a surrogate in the other. Soon Greta will be calling Frances 75 times a day. So: pretty normal for a real mom. But then things take a disturbing turn.
Greta tells Frances to get something out of the cabinet and — eek! — Frances discovers a dozen identical handbags exactly like the one she found on the subway. Why does Greta need so many handbags instead of reusing one or two of them? Why are they identical? Why does she leave them right where Frances is going to find them? It hardly matters, because Jordan has far sillier twists up his sleeve.
As always happens in these movies, Frances goes to the police, who tell her there’s nothing they can do until it’s too late, at which point they’ll be happy to come and clean up the mess. (Okay, that’s not what they say, but it’s what they mean.) Despite being rebuffed by the cops, it doesn’t seem to occur to Frances to arm herself, and mainly she seems careful to do everything she can to remain within reach of Greta. She doesn’t even activate the “block this caller” feature on her iPhone, but then again Jordan is so old he may not be up to speed on what cellphones can do.
Each viewer will, I think, savor a different ride in this fairground of camp. Someone sniffs that Greta, despite claiming to be French, is merely Hungarian. Meow, that’s catty! There’s a surge of violence built around cookie cutters and rolling pins (like an episode of Spring Baking Championship directed by Martin Scorsese), there’s Greta gliding into a restaurant to wreak havoc while the manager claims there’s nothing he can do because “she has a reservation,” there’s Greta rapping Frances across the knuckles for muffing a note at the piano. “The C! The little pinky has to be on the C!” You may shriek and howl at this thriller, but only in derision.