With the exception of “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig, for whom the slightly antiquated yet worldly sounding moniker nicely reinforces her hipster brand, it seems hardly anyone is called Greta these days. You hear “Greta,” and the mind already starts to paint a picture, conjuring someone from another generation, perhaps an escapee from one of those countries on the wrong side of World War II, even as it still leaves much to the imagination. The great Isabelle Huppert plays a woman named Greta in director Neil Jordan’s thriller of the same name, and while this unforgettable weirdo doesn’t crack the pantheon of the actress’s 10 best roles, it’s likely to become the one for which she is best known in the U.S.
With “Greta,” Huppert has a chance to reinvent her reputation overseas, to build on the fact that there’s an entire audience for whom “Elle” may be the only film in which they’ve ever seen her, and she’s clearly having fun playing with that limited awareness here. The French actress had certain American ambitions early in her career — hopes that “Heaven’s Gate” certainly didn’t help — and in its own generically satisfying way, “Greta” feels like a throwback to films like Curtis Hanson’s “The Bedroom Window,” in which she played the femme fatale. It’s a potboiler, pure and simple, but one that ought to give Jordan’s career a boost of fresh life while bringing God-knows-what-kind of new English-language offers Huppert’s way.
It’s probably best to approach such a film knowing as little as possible going in, although in a way, if you’ve seen more than a hundred movies in your life, you know exactly where this one’s headed. “Greta” opens with a character named Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) riding the subway. She’s not a native New Yorker, and as such, she doesn’t know better than to ignore the green handbag someone has left a few seats away — a handbag that, when traced back to its original owner, leads Frances to Greta’s door.
An elegant widow with a thick French accent and somewhat stilted delivery (in English, Huppert sounds like she’s reciting, rather than speaking naturally), Greta proves to be a gracious host, inviting Frances in for tea. Never mind the heavy thumping against the wall behind the piano. It’s just the neighbors doing construction, Greta explains, although Frances will later wish she’d been a little more suspicious. Still, the visit is pleasant enough, and Frances doesn’t think twice about giving Greta her phone number before leaving. The poor woman is clearly lonely — if only she knew just how lonely! — and her arrival in Frances’ life is quite welcome at this particular moment, filling at least some part of the void left behind by her recently deceased mother.
As Frances returns to the apartment she shares with skeptical best friend Erica (Maika Monroe), she’s already thinking of other ways she could help Greta, who seems a bit too enthusiastic to have made a new friend. What follows is a freaky reminder of why, in this day and age, young people don’t (or at least shouldn’t) give out their contact info to just anyone: Even the clingiest of mothers doesn’t text or phone as often as Greta does, and as the missed-call count somewhat ridiculously climbs into the double digits, Frances begins to feel understandably worried.
Meanwhile, Greta, unable to accept being ignored, shows up at Frances’ waitressing job, first lurking outside and later reserving a table. What would you do in Frances’ situation? Movies like this depend largely on how closely they anticipate a reasonable person’s reaction to the basic premise, and screenwriter Ray Wright (who shares credit with Jordan) wisely uses the early, irreverent banter between Frances and Erica to establish them as no dummies. Frances is just too nice for her own good, and when the time comes to call the police, she does. But what can the authorities do when all she has is a hunch that Greta is stalking her?
That changes after the first confrontation — at the restaurant where Frances works. “How is the Chianti?” Moretz’s character asks, trying to maintain at least the veneer of civility. “Like you,” Huppert replies, “promises a lot and then disappoints.” The opposite could be said for “Greta,” which falls squarely in B movie territory but, by virtue of its two lead performers, winds up being far more enjoyable than it has any right to be. From the Chianti exchange forward, Huppert does what ironic audiences expect from a thriller destined to be enjoyed as camp, which is to commit to the part as written, while Jordan relies on fairly conventional horror-movie tricks (including a thrashing bag gimmick straight out of “Audition”) to keep the audience on edge. Just wait till Greta gets Frances back to her place, where she can finally reveal her motives.
This is the way Americans are bound to see Huppert: as an obsessive black-widow woman, so desperate for company that she’s willing to kidnap her companions if necessary. Greta’s backstory is confusing and inconsistent — and frankly, unnecessary. But the movie needs some way to justify Huppert’s presence: a severe, somewhat garbled-sounding crone (or would that be “Garbo-ed”?), who conveys evil even when making cookies, never more terrifying than when she wields a syringe. And so Jordan and Wright have adapted the role to fit their star, right down to the detail of an Eiffel Tower trinket that supplies the last twisted punch line in a movie that invites you to laugh at the most sinister of situations.