Greta is a shlocky, campy horror film masquerading as a prestige pic. Actually, masquerading is the wrong word—Greta is in on the joke and hopes you will be, too. The film is dressed up with “classy” trappings: Liszt and Chopin on the soundtrack, well-appointed New York apartments, and a grand doyenne—French actress Isabelle Huppert—as our psycho villain. Of course, anyone who has seen Huppert’s body of work knows that the woman will go there—but to American audiences, that French accent and tasteful wardrobe alone screams arthouse.
Chloë Grace Moretz plays Frances McCullen, new to New York City and still mourning the recent death of her mother. Frances, who works as a waitress at an upscale restaurant, is a bit of a naif compared to her wild child roommate, Erica (Maika Monroe)—and she’s polite to a fault. (It’s an odd touch that Frances grew up in Boston, of all places. Seems like Iowa or Kansas would’ve worked better for the “Innocent Girl in the Big City” narrative. But hey, it’s not my screenplay.)
One day, Frances is on the subway and she spies an unattended hunter-green purse. She picks it up, looks around for its owner, then goes to the MTA booth, which is unoccupied. (This comes close to a deus ex machina—had the booth been attended, we’d have no movie. But maybe it’s an inside joke on the state of the New York subway system?) She looks inside the purse, finds the address of its owner, and—over the protests of Erica, who thinks they should take the money in the wallet and go on a shopping spree—sets off to return it. The address takes her to an ivy-coated townhouse owned by the 60something, oh-so French Greta (Huppert). She invites her in for tea, shares her tale of woe—dead husband, daughter living in Paris, the scourge of constant loneliness—and Frances is touched by her. It doesn’t hurt that Frances is in need of a mother figure herself.
The friendship is going swimmingly until Frances comes over for dinner one night—soupe de poisson and risotto are on the menu—and accidentally comes across a cabinet filled with hunter-green purses. She opens them all up—each contains the same contents: a wallet with a small wad of cash, pills, a driver’s license. She can’t leave Greta’s house quickly enough.
From there, Greta morphs into a stalker film—director Neil Jordan turns Huppert’s dignified, imperious mien on its head and makes it feel creepy—with lots of jump cuts and classic horror techniques. It’s all quite silly, but Huppert is great—a scene where she simply switches from speaking in French to Hungarian manages to be one of the most chilling of the film—and the movie gets the job done. There are a few frustrating moments when you desperately want Frances to do something else—run! hit Greta over the head! call the police!—and she doesn’t, but this is clearly intentional. Jordan is playfully trafficking in these horror tropes. My audience was all in: yelling at the screen, getting all worked up, and having a great time. Don’t be fooled by the upscale window dressing: Greta is fun trash.