Thursday, February 28, 2019

In Neil Jordan’s Greta, a Single Woman's Loneliness is a Fate Worse than Death

Isabelle Huppert, piano teacher extraordinaire
(Neil Jordan, Ireland/USA, 2018, Rated R, 98 minutes) 

"For some reason, I could relate to somebody whose loneliness drives them utterly insane."
--Neil Jordan to Mark Olsen of The Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2019

There's nothing wrong with feeling lonely. It's human, it happens, and it
doesn't make anyone a loser. When it hits, there's nothing wrong with
reaching out to someone who might feel the same way, whether for a day or for a lifetime. Maybe that person is significantly younger; maybe they're significantly older. In either case, it doesn't necessarily mean that the part-
icipants are looking for a surrogate child or parent--not every relationship has to be Freudian, dammit. Maybe they just share common interests and enjoy a friendly rapport. It isn't outside the realm of possibility.

In Greta, one of Neil Jordan's most disappointing films, loneliness makes one character stupidly gullible and the other dangerously psychotic. Can a character be lonely in this film without making the worst possible choices? No, they can't, and that's a significant bummer in light of Jordan triumphs, like 1986's Mona Lisa and 1992's The Crying Game, in which seemingly mismatched characters ease each other's loneliness--at least for a time.

Greta is Jordan's second film, after 2007's The Brave One, to take place in Manhattan, though he filmed it in Dublin and Toronto. Because he prioritizes interiors over exteriors, the geographical subterfuge isn't too obvious, except when it comes to Greta's flat, which looks very European, but so is she, so I was willing to let it go, though Jim Sheridan did an even better job at transforming Dublin into Queens in Get Rich or Die Tryin' (to the extent that most viewers probably failed to peg it as an Irish production).

Frances with roommate Erica (Maika Monroe)
Chloë Grace Moretz, so good in last year's The Miseducation of Cameron Post, plays Frances, a waitress at a high-end eatery, who meets Isabelle Huppert's Greta, a retired piano teacher (shades of a certain Michael Haneke film) when she finds a malachite-green handbag on the subway. Anybody else would keep the bag--and the money inside--or call its owner, but Frances is still recovering from the loss of her mother the year before. She's stupid with grief. Or maybe she's just stupid, because she hand-delivers the bag to its grateful owner. The minute she steps across Greta's shadowy threshold, the film segues from the convivial vibe of Sean Baker's Starlet, in which a young woman befriends a significantly older one, to the studio thrillers of the Poppy Bush Interzone in which members of straight society tangled with outcasts of various kinds and paid the price for their transgression.

If you've watched the trailer--and even if you haven't--it's no spoiler to say that Greta isn't right in the head. We've seen her kind before in clammy two-handers, from Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction to Rob Reiner's Misery to Barbet Schroeder's Single White Female. The bad gals in these movies want things they can't have, like other women's husbands--or lives. They aren’t sane, they never will be, and death is the only solution to their dilemma.

At first Frances falls for Greta's old world charms, but the minute she finds out that the handbag was planted specifically to lure a sucker like her, she tries to extricate herself from Greta’s grasp, but the older woman refuses to let her go. The stalking culminates in a scene in which Greta has a table-overturning tantrum at Frances' place of employment. Her freak-out is so over the top that I lost all interest in the film right then and there. If Jordan had gone full-bore into camp, I might have enjoyed the tonal shift, but the film has a certain classy veneer--it was shot by Atonement's Seamus McGarvey--that makes the loopy stuff seem more misjudged than not. Granted, it's a fine line, and Jordan got the balance right in his full-blooded adaptations of Pat McCabe's The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto in which fantasy helps his imaginative characters to weather dark times.

No such luck with Greta. The film, which Jordan co-wrote with Ray Wright (The Crazies), abandons its intriguing premise the minute the titular character reveals her true colors. Granted, Huppert appears to have relished the opportunity to chew gum like a bratty teenager, to dance around her living room in stocking feet, and to jab a hypodermic in the neck of a familiar Jordan player, but the film has nothing to say about loneliness that you haven't heard before, i.e. it's for losers and loonies. Except that it isn't. And I wish the very talented Neil Jordan had made a film about that.

Greta opens on Friday, March 1, at AMC Pacific Place (600 Pine St) and AMC Seattle 10 (4500 Ninth Ave NE). Images from Focus Features.

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