Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz in Greta (Photo: Focus Features)
** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Neil Jordan
STARS Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz
It’s not the nicest of terms, of course, but “hagsploitation” was the designation commonly given to a certain type of sub-genre that featured aging actresses in thrillers made during the 1960s and early ‘70s. (Some prefer the term “psycho-biddy,” which to me just sounds like another spoof of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” like The Fools’ “Psycho Chicken.”) Kicking off with the 1962 Bette Davis-Joan Crawford hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the genre exploded over the next 10-odd years, with Davis, Crawford, Geraldine Page, Tallulah Bankhead and other seasoned actresses camping it up in such endeavors as Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Strait-Jacket, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, Die! Die! My Darling, and many more. As with all film fads, the well — and box office receipts — eventually dried up, but movie fans have been left with what, on balance, remain entertaining terror tales, many bearing Grand Guignol stylings.
Greta is seemingly a throwback to the “hagsploitation” flicks of yore. It was co-written and directed by Neil Jordan, an accomplished filmmaker whose absence from the cinematic scene has been so conspicuous in recent years that many movie theaters have placed “Have You Seen This Man?” posters throughout their lobbies. A once-dazzling director whose output included such gems as The Crying Game (for which he won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) and The Company of Wolves, Jordan hasn’t helmed a theatrical feature since 2012. It’s hard to see Greta as any sort of triumphant comeback or victory lap, as it’s a tepid thriller that begins promisingly before simultaneously jumping the tracks, jumping the shark, and jumping off a cliff.
Chloë Grace Moretz plays Frances McMullen, a sweet kid living in New York City with her more assertive roommate Erica (Maika Monroe). Still coping with the death of her mother and miffed at her dad (Colm Feore) for moving on, Frances one day discovers a handbag that’s been left on a subway car. Finding an address inside, she returns the purse to its rightful owner: Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a Frenchwoman with a deceased husband, an estranged daughter, and a former career as a piano teacher. Greta and Frances quickly become friends, and they spend so much time together that Erica wonders if Frances views Greta as a substitute mother. Frances is offended by the suggestion, but before she can truly analyze her feelings, she accidentally discovers a whole cabinet of handbags in Greta’s home, thus realizing that the older woman routinely leaves them in subways as a way to meet young females.
Understandably put off by this deception, Frances abruptly ends her relationship with Greta. But, like Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, Greta is not going to be ignored, Dan, and she leaves Frances approximately 893 voice mail and text messages before finally showing up at both her apartment and her place of employment. Naturally, the police are useless, Dad’s in another city, and Erica also has to start dealing with Greta’s disturbed behavior. And after Frances rebuffs her one time too many, Greta takes drastic action — one that eventually results in the necessity of a private investigator (Jordan regular Stephen Rea) on the scene.
What initially promises to be a psychological thriller soon sheds any pretensions and emerges as yet another dumdum schlockbuster that’s short on logic but towering in terms of obvious twists, minimal suspense, and unintended camp. The plotholes (particularly the one needed to jump-start the climax) are so deep that a broken leg is a possibility when viewing this thing, and character development is painted in only the broadest strokes (the biggest victim is the well-meaning father played by Feore, whose dimensions are teased then dropped, much like the character itself).
Moretz and Monroe deliver earnest performances, and they’re especially ingratiating together — in fact, they’re so comfortable with each other that I originally assumed they were lesbian lovers before I quickly remembered this was a mainstream American movie and there would be more chance of seeing neo-Nazis or serial killers as sympathetic protagonists before witnessing heroic homosexuals. As for Huppert’s performance, that’s a matter of taste. Certainly, many will love seeing her go the looney-tunes route with her ham-on-wry turn, but others will feel slightly embarrassed that this award-winning legend — the Meryl Streep of France, with more César nominations than any other actress — is camping it up in a role in which she’s ultimately miscast (after all, Greta is supposed to be scary and intimidating, and Huppert is neither).
Still, Huppert’s role as a piano teacher in Greta at least points the way toward a rental suggestion that better shows off her sizable acting chops. That would be Michael Haneke’s 2001 The Piano Teacher, for which Huppert won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her portrayal of a sexually repressed woman who enters into a potentially dangerous relationship with a young student. That prickly drama offers the sort of tension and intrigue largely missing from this hag-drag.