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Non-Review Review: Greta

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Greta is a pure and pulpy delight.

In some ways, Greta could be seen as a follow-up to director Neil Jordan’s previous film, the under-appreciated Byzantium. Like Byzantium, Greta is also a tale of monstrous motherhood and of a young woman struggling with a prolonged and extended childhood. Indeed, both Byzantium and Greta are very much genre pieces. This is in keeping with Neil Jordan’s sensibilities as a filmmaker. It is dismissive of these stories to suggest that Jordan “elevates” them, but he has a very strong understanding of the mechanics of how stories like these work. He always has, going back to stories like The Company of Wolves or Interview with a Vampire. (Even other “genre” work, such as crime films like Mona Lisa or The Crying Game.)

Both Greta and Byzantium are monster stories, even if Greta is anchored by a much more modern sort of monster than Byzantium.  Whereas Byzantium explored this mother-daughter push-and-pull through the lens of the classic vampire story, Greta draws inspiration from a different sources. There are obvious classic gothic influences at work in this psychological horror – Edgar Allan Poe looms large over one of the film’s big reveals, to pick one example. However, Jordan is most obviously and most consciously evoking the popular trashy psychological horror genre of the late eighties and nineties, the dozens of the films that were legitimised by the success of Silence of the Lambs; films like The Cell or Kiss the Girls or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

Indeed, the easiest and most efficient way to describe Greta might be “Postnatal Attraction” meets “Single Hungarian Female.”

Greta begins simply enough, with a very straightforward and very enticing hook. Frances McCullen is taking the subway home when evening when she notices that a bag has been left unattended. It is late; the service desk is not open. So Frances takes the bag home with her, planning to turn it into the lost and found the following day. However, her roommate Erica opens the bag. It contains identification and home address for the bags owner, Greta Hideg. Displaying an incredibly sense of decency, Frances decides to return the bag to its rightful owner. The movie is very clear of the direction in which this drama will unfold. “This city is going to eat you alive,” Erica warns Frances. These seem to be prophetic words.

Like a lot of Jordan’s output, there is definitely a strong fairy tale quality to Greta, albeit filtered through the lens of psychological thriller and anchored firmly in the present day. After all, fairy tales were often cautionary tales about the dangers waiting for children out in the world, warnings about the dark beasts lurking in forests and the predators that stalked them on two legs. It makes sense to transpose that sort of story to the modern urban environment. Frances is introduced as a character who is arguably unsuited to the demands of big city living; she is too compassionate, too sensitive, too kind. She is not yet calloused or numb to the demands of navigating a big city.

In its opening scenes, and in a very general sense, Greta seems to position itself as an urban horror story. Although the film is nominally set in New York, the decision to film a lot of it in Dublin lends the cityscape a convincing uncanny quality; although Irish viewers will recognise various landmarks, even casual cinema-goers will likely sense something off about how the city looks and feels. It is to Jordan’s credit that this works as effectively as it does. It has the effect of rendering one of the most iconic and recognisable urban landscapes on the planet as strange and alien. The version of New York in Greta is a version of the city that doesn’t exist. It feels ethereal and unknowable.

Erica’s warning that New York will swallow Frances whole seems prophetic. Frances traces the bag back to its home address. It is tucked away, down a side street. It is an oasis in the storm of city living. It is little shelter that thousands of people must walk by every day, often without giving it a second glance. As Greta develops, one of its strong central themes is the idea that Greta’s home exists in some sort of ethereal space. What happens inside is completely locked away from the world outside. Sitting down for coffee, Frances is distracted by a loud banging noise. Greta blames her neighbours’ renovations. “I swear they are building an ark,” she jokes. However, as the story develops, it seems unlikely that her neighbours have any idea what Greta does in her home.

One of the strongest aspects of Greta is how rapidly the story progresses and develops. Jordan deserves a great deal of the credit here. Greta wastes precious little time on the question of whether there is something deeply wrong with the title character, refusing to engage in crude audience manipulation. Jordan is a canny enough director to understand that any audience member going to see a movie called Greta will know that – given the kind of story being told – it is only a matter of time before Greta is revealed to be a monster of some description. Jordan cannily lays out several of his cards quite early. Indeed, the sequence in which Frances realises that Greta is not what she appears to be is masterful; it is a delightfully warped Hitchcock-esque reveal.

Greta is revealed to be a predator perfectly suited to the anonymity of the urban environment. It is revealed very early on that she is a lonely mother who has drifted out of contact with her own daughter. As a result, she seeks to take advantage of the anonymity of city living to find a replacement. This is the appeal of New York to Greta, of “the big city.” It provides her with fertile hunting ground. Any young woman she finds isn’t an individual, but an interchangeable replacement for her absent daughter. Frances is just the latest in a long line of surrogate daughter figures, the newest model in the series. Initially, the relationship has a similar appeal to Frances. Greta is a stand-in for her own recently deceased parent, a suitable “surrogate mother”, as Erica remarks.

A large part of the appeal of Greta is how eagerly it commits to its beats. The plot is, admittedly, completely absurd and heightened. The movie hinges on a number of very familiar genre conventions, including a series of painfully obvious bad decisions from its young protagonist. However, Greta is never apologetic about any of these, even as it understands that they are necessary for a film like this to work. Instead, Jordan counts on rapid escalation to distract from some of the hokeyness of the set-up. Greta may be powered by a series of recognisable plot beats, but it is constantly turning the volume up. Greta is never a movie that contemplates a narrative choice long enough to wonder whether it is a bad idea, instead committing full-tilt to that idea.

Isabelle Huppert is a large part of why Greta works as well as it does. Greta plays almost as an extended English-language coming-out party for the formidable French actor. Indeed, the eponymous character in Greta often seems like a synthesis of Huppert’s most iconic screen roles, a trashy and pulpy remix of the films that made her an arthouse legend. As with The Piano Teacher, Huppert is once again cast as a piano player; she even offers Frances lessons at one point. As with Amateur, there is a recurring sense that her wholesome exterior hides something much more cynical. As with Elle… well, the poster for Greta features the actor holding a pistol and the film hinges on the contrast of Huppert’s sophisticated persona with impressive levels of brutality.

Huppert herself is completely game. Greta obviously doesn’t match the impact or quality of those earlier films. It seems highly unlikely that Greta will be remembered as Huppert’s best performance, but it does seem likely to be one of her defining roles because it so skillfully distills some of her major roles into something resembling an archetype. Huppert chews eagerly on the scenery, relishing the opportunity to play everything from quietly menacing to full-blown hysteric. One of the film’s most memorable beats features the character dancing through her living room armed with a hypodermic needle full of tranquiliser for her unsuspecting target. It’s goofy, it’s absurd, it’s striking. Huppert is having fun, and that gives the audience (and the film) permission to have fun too.

It helps that Jordan is very conscious of the story that he is telling here. Greta is very much a modern fairy tale. However, Jordan is very shrewd in how he sets up audience expectations. The third act of the film sets up a character who seems positioned to serve as the role of the woodsman in this Red Riding Hood fable, a stereotypical New York private detective played by Stephen Rea with an endearing New York accent. Greta is very clever in how it ultimately chooses to let that third act twist play out, and who it lets play that role in the story. As with Byzantium, there’s a surprisingly strong feminist undertone to a story that is firmly rooted in a genre that has not always treated its female characters with great deal of respect nor afforded them a great deal of agency.

Greta is great.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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