Isabelle Huppert plays another convincing psychopath in Irish director Neil Jordan’s stylish, hair-raising thriller Greta. They’ve both had a lot of experience. He put the gorgeous horror into such films as The Crying Game, Interview With the Vampire and Byzantium, and the fearless Huppert has done things on screen I have never seen before—and never want to see again. I have still never recovered from the harrowing scene in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, in which she stripped naked and sliced off her genitals.
Greta is also about some of the same depraved subjects in The Piano Teacher—sadism, desire, loneliness, betrayal and desperation, set to the music of Franz Liszt and Julie London singing “You Are There.” It begins when a girl named Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz)—new to New York, still mourning the death of her mother and working in an upscale restaurant—finds a handbag on the subway and, against the advice of her best friend and roommate Erica (Maika Monroe), decides to return it to its rightful owner, whose name is Greta.
Enter Huppert, a kind, elegant and soft-spoken French sophisticate addicted to Chanel suits and classical music. Naive, estranged from her father (Colm Feore) and in need of maternal affection, Frances warms to the friendly French widow in record time. They bond, but it doesn’t take long for Frances to realize her new friend is not what she appears to be. Apparently this is a girl who never heard the seasoned New Yorker’s warning “don’t talk to strangers for fear they might talk back.”
In the odd relationship that develops, the girl helps the older woman adopt a rescue dog that comes to a bad end. Then she discovers a pile of concealed pocketbooks like the one she found on the subway, all labeled with the names of other girls who returned them to the benevolent Greta to rescue her from her “black hole of loneliness.” Sensing instability, Frances flees, but the rejection makes her the object of the older woman’s obsession.
Greta’s daughter, who deserted her to live in Paris, turns out to have committed suicide four years ago and never lived in Paris at all. Greta herself is revealed not to be from Paris, either. She’s from Hungary. One unsettling encounter leads to another, as Frances ends up in a children’s toy box in a locked room behind a piano that only plays “Liebestraum.” One by one, bloody corpses pile up in the basement of a strange house that looks like the setting in a melodrama at the old Grand Guignol theater.
Working from a tidy screenplay co-written with Ray Wright and beautifully shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Fifty Shades of Grey), Jordan extracts sheer terror from the most ordinary images—a coffee cup rotating slowly inside a microwave, an elevator that won’t stop at any floor, a lethal rolling pin and a cookie cutter that removes a finger, among other items.
Nobody is safe from Isabelle Huppert when she goes stark raving unhinged, including Jordan regular Stephen Rea, who pays her an unexpected visit as a nosy detective and wishes he hadn’t. It all sounds grim, gruesome and predictably out of control, but there’s nothing cheesy about Greta. It’s a nail-biter that sends ice down the spine and proves that in the hands of a master director, any genre is capable of achieving new heights of imagination.