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Almost every movie by Irish writer-director Neil Jordan has the air of a fable about it, though it’s never a bedtime story you’d want to tell your children. The emotional aches and ardent eroticism in his kind of Grimm fairy tale are decidedly mature, though you usually have to dig through some puerility to get to them. This is certainly the case with Greta, which Jordan co-wrote with Ray Wright, and which is his first feature directorial credit since 2012’s lady vampire fantasia Byzantium.
The women take center stage here, too, and they’re a first-class bunch. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Frances McCullen, a young restaurant hostess who lives with her best friend Erica Penn (Maika Monroe) in New York City. Their spacious, exposed-brick apartment is of the sort that only movie characters luck into, though Frances can’t enjoy her home, or much of anything, really, since she’s still grieving her dead mother. Is it her sense of bereavement that, in part, leads her to pick up a lost pocketbook and return it in person to its rightful owner? That would be Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), an older Frenchwoman (so she says) who loves piano music — specifically Franz Liszt — and has an endearing need for companionship.
Frances initially thinks her new acquaintance’s loneliness stems from an absent daughter abroad. But as their friendship deepens, some more disturbing motives reveal themselves. That lost pocketbook, for one? Think the candy house that the witch in Hansel and Gretel uses to lure her prey, though Greta prefers to feast figuratively on hearts and minds as opposed to literally on human flesh. But Frances is no little girl lost, or at the least isn’t going to be fed on without a fight.
Narratively, Jordan is working in a pulpy vein that at best suggests prime Brian De Palma and at worst Chloe-era Atom Egoyan. The early parts of Greta are especially clunky, as Huppert stalks both Moretz and Monroe (the latter of whom thrillingly proves to be more than the ditzy blond she at first seems) with ridiculous ease and little consequence. The general ineffectiveness of the police and of authority figures like Frances’ estranged dad (Colm Feore) lead one to fear that Jordan is venturing into the dreckish territory of his Jodie Foster revenge thriller The Brave One (2007).
But the filmmaker’s expressively cockeyed impulses soon take over (he’s ably assisted by the terrific cinematographer Seamus McGarvey), and the resulting craziness is quite delightful to behold in the moment and to reflect on after. A hidden room in Greta’s home becomes a psychological battleground, with both Moretz and Huppert gaining the upper hand at different points (sometimes in dreams!). And there are plenty of gleefully grisly touches, one involving a cookie-cutter and a wrong-placed finger, another a syringe, along with Jordan regular Stephen Rea and an impromptu dance that Huppert performs as if she were the star pupil at the Paris Opera Ballet.
Coupled with the carnage is a potent undercurrent of grief that’s evocatively summed up in an image of a children’s toy chest with something savage locked inside. There are monsters among us, but not all of them are human.
Production companies: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Lawrence Bender Productions, Metropolitan Films
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea
Director: Neil Jordan
Screenplay: Ray Wright, Neil Jordan
Executive producers: Neil Jordan, Bruce Toll, Hwang Soon-il, Kim Do-Soo, Lei Luo, Mei Han
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti, James Flynn, Lawrence Bender, Karen Richards
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Original score: Javier Navarrete
Editing: Nick Emerson
Production designer: Anna Rackard
Publicist: The Angellotti Co.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
U.S. sales: Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor
International sales: Sierra / Affinity