Director Neil Jordan’s sure grasp of the dark atmosphere and psychology of folklore informs his first feature in six years, Greta, a stalker thriller with a Grimm fairy tale’s strangeness and macabre sense of morality. Its protagonist, Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz), is a vision of innocence. An overworked server at a high-end restaurant in New York, she reveals her goodness early on when she finds a purse in a subway car and immediately sets about returning it to its owner, and to the utter bafflement of her acerbic roommate, Erica (Maika Monroe). Frances tracks down the owner, an older woman named Greta (Isabelle Huppert), who gratefully invites the young woman in for tea and subsequently bonds with her over their mutual loneliness.
The pair’s initial interactions are tender and trusting, with Frances confiding that she feels grief for her deceased mother and Greta expressing remorse over her distance from her child who lives abroad. Each fills a void in the other, and happily so, but even throughout these early interactions, Jordan insinuates that something is amiss. The filmmaker makes tremendously suffocating use of Greta’s house, which is gloomily tucked between storefronts and apartment buildings. The small home looks unstuck in time and space, its interior decorated like a rural French cottage and the sound of bustling New York streets curiously dying away within its walls. Sunlight trickles through curtains to create an idyllic atmosphere. The house produces such a hyperbolic level of comfort that it provokes a sense of unease, as if Frances were entering some magical-realist realm in an alternate dimension.
Eventually, Greta becomes increasingly needy, messaging Frances at all hours and panicking when she doesn’t get a prompt response. When Frances discovers that their meeting may not have been the result of chance, she attempts to pull away from Greta, only for the older woman’s clinginess to turn to stalking. It’s here that Jordan amps up the film’s folkloric aspects, casting Greta as an almost supernatural being. The images of Greta standing stock still while surveilling Frances from afar are suffused with a gothic chill, and the woman’s ability to always know just where her prey is defies reason. Greta’s captivating charm even brings to mind Dracula’s saturnine gaze, as she’s able to disarm Francs in such a way that the younger woman doesn’t realize she’s being trapped until it’s too late. And the notion that Frances is just the latest of numerous thralls to Greta is even more unsettling.
Of course, there’s something more than a little ridiculous about building a jump-scare stalker thriller around arthouse superstar Isabelle Huppert, and to Jordan’s credit he embraces the silliness of his premise. Numerous instances of Greta suddenly appearing in the negative space around Frances are as funny as they are scary, as Greta acts as if her terrifying intrusions are completely normal. Huppert delivers many of her lines in a cooing plea, infantilizing Greta even as the woman seeks to be seen as maternal. And when Greta goes fully off the rails, Huppert indulges the character’s madness with gusto, as when she unveils a toy box filled with severed doll parts as a “bed of lies.” Huppert has played disturbing characters before but never with such precise comic timing, and some later flourishes, as in Greta dancing balletically on her way to kill a snooping character, are downright hilarious.
Even as the plot spirals into madness, Jordan’s film displays an admirable economy and clarity, paying off numerous earlier details as Frances finds herself increasingly trapped by Greta. Extraneous characters introduced seemingly for a bit of additional backstory factor into the climax, and numerous lines of dialogue recur like musical themes, throwaway statements that become repurposed as terrifying taunts. Jordan’s deft control of pace and tone elevates Greta past mere gimmickry, resulting in a comic thriller whose goofy humor only compounds its mastery of suspense.