As has been documented in books, documentaries, and this very website, horror is a gendered genre. The response a woman will have while watching a horror film is vastly different than if a male is watching. How women react to specific situations in a horror film can immediately lift them out of a movie, particularly if it’s evident the screenwriter doesn’t understand the experience they’re writing about. In the case of Neil Jordan’s latest film, Greta, it’s highly evident two men wrote a female-centric horror movie and it ends up being Greta’s downfall. Jordan’s first feature in seven years is a she for he narrative that could have had some unique ideas if it wasn’t incredibly dated in its approach.
Frances McCullen (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a lonely young woman still dealing with losing her mom a year ago. While riding the New York subway she sees a woman’s handbag and plans to reunite the bag with its owner. The purse belongs to Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a woman equally alone, and Frances takes to her immediately. But when Frances discovers the purse gag is Greta’s shtick for finding friends she ends the relationship. Unfortunately, no one leaves Greta and Frances becomes the focus of the woman’s obsession.
The film’s first half emphasizes these are two lost souls in need of comfort in a city known for its isolating nature. Frances lives in an impossibly expensive loft with her clubgirl best friend, Erica (Maika Monroe) and actively avoids her father because he’s remarried. Frances is a good girl who works and doesn’t seem to actually go outside. Her relationship with Greta could be perceived as sweet, if Erica didn’t immediately tell Frances the whole thing feels weird, and within two scenes of saying that things immediately prove Erica right.
The problem is Jordan and co-screenwriter Ray Wright fail to look at how women would actually respond to this situation. Greta is a “she for he,” a female character who stands in a male character. She’s written and presented no different than a man would be in that particular genre, with the goal being that it’s subversive because she’s a woman. The problem is this makes everything within Greta ring false. Why does Erica immediately suspect the older Greta, whom she’s never met, is bad? If this was a man, yes, her suspicion would be justified because women live in the modern world. It doesn’t ring true here.
When Frances breaks off contact with Greta, Greta immediately opens up the male stalker handbook and takes from there. She follows Frances to the girl’s workplace, calls constantly, and at one point tells Frances her mother’s death was a means of letting them “be together.” These moments could be interesting but aren’t handled with any nuance. When Frances, understandably upset to see Greta, begs her boss to get rid of the woman, her male boss treats it with all the seriousness of a cold plate of pasta. In 2019 this apathy wouldn’t fly. Just seeing Frances go home and leave the door open, in a scene that follows Greta terrorizing her, leaves you to wonder if Jordan and Wright have ever met a woman.
The stalker genre is commonly reserved for couples, a spurned significant other believing they can make someone love them. When these stories focus on the same sex, usually women, they’re focused on competition – the stalker wants domesticity – with an added air of unspoken lesbianism. In the case of Greta, Jordan and Wright, wisely avoid the latter by turning it into the former. There’s no sexual component between Greta’s relationship with Frances, no lingering hand grazes or other scenes meant to incite the male viewer into thinking these ladies are prepping to get down.
Isabelle Huppert is certainly the reason to see this. As Greta Huppert presents herself with such deportment and respect. Her early scenes opposite Moretz are cute, a mother and daughter seeking comfort in the other. Unfortunately these moments of happiness are limited to a few scenes. At times it feels like Greta was a longer movie that went through some serious cutting. The Anchorman adage “that escalated quickly” happens far too often here, with Greta going from pleasant to psycho in just four scenes. Had there been more ambiguity, maybe just an additional scene or two, it wouldn’t feel like such an extreme to have the ending go where it goes.
By the third act, watching Greta dance around while joyfully stabbing people with needles may be fun for Huppert but it just plays like a different movie. That being said, Isabelle Huppert playing a happy murderer who enjoys playing the piano is great fun. Chloe Moretz is equally solid opposite Huppert. She has to play a woman terrified at every turn which she does perfectly, though the third act has her playing little more than a damsel. Maika Monroe gets a chance to shine at the end, but spends two-thirds of the movie playing a Valley girl circa 2003 who thinks colonics and yoga are SOOOOO in.
Greta continues the downward spiral of Neil Jordan’s career. The once successful director of women – see 1984’s fabulous The Company of Wolves – is stymied by failing to understand how women have changed. Like his 2012 vampire feature Byzantium, Greta is little more than two actresses working together, but stuck with a script that can only see things through a male lens. In Greta’s case, every decision Frances makes is stupid. As cliche dictates, she’s a dumb girl running into the basement when she should be grabbing one of the countless sharp objects at her disposal. Huppert is fun, but it’s obvious the script wanted this to be a man, so her action are over-the-top and equally dumb. You’ll be dreaming for the days of 2003-era horror. Greta is about 15 years too late to be progressive.