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Isabelle Huppert in Greta
Isabelle Huppert

Greta is a film about loneliness, and using designer bags to make friends

Neil Jordan discusses his camp, creepy thriller starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz as lost, searching souls

What’s lurking behind Isabelle Huppert’s eyes? No matter the role, the French actor’s piercing stare is always menacing and irresistible. In Greta, a demented stalker-thriller from director Neil Jordan, the versatility of Huppert’s infamous glare is pushed to the extreme. At first, Huppert depicts Greta as a fragile old woman, a lost soul in New York whose face radiates warmth and motherliness. But when betrayed, Greta reveals herself to be a monster whose scare tactics involve intense eye contact; by taking longer to blink, the isolated figure reduces her victims to a withering wreck.

What unites both sides of Greta’s personality, though, is intense loneliness. In Greta, everyone suffers from solitude. For most of the knowingly campy, trashy movie, our sympathies lie with Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young waitress in desperate need of companionship. Initially, Frances has one friend, her flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe), and is otherwise grieving the death of her mother. Frances is the kind of person who rides public transport solo without earphones (a cry for help, if I’ve ever seen one) and feels compelled to return a lost handbag to its rightful owner. In doing so, Frances stumbles upon Greta’s doorstep, and they form a surrogate mother/daughter relationship. Then it falls apart. A stranger, Frances learns, is just a potential stalker you haven’t met.

“I can understand a character being driven insane by loneliness very well,” Jordan admits. “I’m very bad at being on my own. The fact that somebody can be so isolated in a huge city is, to me, very true.” Our conversation, fittingly, takes place at The Soho Hotel, in a room ostracised from the outside world. A desire for human connection is a theme that runs throughout the Irish filmmaker’s career: from the eternal longing of Interview with the Vampire and Byzantium, to the romantic obsession of Mona Lisa and The Crying Game. “You can’t be lonelier than Greta, can you?” Jordan adds. “Planting handbags just so somebody will come and say hello to you – you can’t be lonelier than that.”

“Planting handbags just so somebody will come and say hello to you – you can’t be lonelier than that” – Neil Jordan

Greta, then, is like a witch from a fairytale, except she sprinkles designer handbags, not breadcrumbs, to lure her prey. When Frances removes Greta from her life, the widow responds by transforming into a Freddy Krueger movie villain – one who doesn’t wait until her target falls asleep. Like a scarecrow, Greta stands outside Frances’ home and workplace all day long. According to the police, it’s a form of harassment that’s within the law. Moreover, Greta is internet-savvy: the stalking is online and offline. So there are echoes of Single White FemaleMisery, and the final scene of The Social Network where a sociopath repeatedly refreshes Facebook.

“Isabelle’s terrifying, isn’t she?” Jordan laughs. “She’s got several layers to her. I saw the terrifying bit when she began to do press. She presents a very sculpted image of herself.” It’s true: I can attest from interviewing Huppert for Elle that she can be simultaneously warm and intimidating. “Isabelle could be this ordinary, rather sophisticated tea-drinking lady with her little cakes, and she could make the movement from that into a pathological, demonic mother figure quite seamlessly.”

Once Huppert is unleashed, Greta morphs into a glorious generator of GIF-worthy thrills – including Greta projectile-spitting gum into Frances’ hair. Thanks to Huppert’s menacing energy, it’s the film’s equivalent of the shower scene in Psycho or the beheading in Hereditary. “I thought it would be really absurd or really yucky,” Jordan recalls. “It’s a long scene. Isabelle appears in the corridor outside the apartment. From the very start, she’s chewing gum, and she’s saying, ‘I love you.’ And she keeps chewing. She says, ‘You promised this.’ And she keeps chewing. She’s an actor who knows how to hold one in suspense. She knows what the revelation can be. And then she spits the gum! I’m glad you were surprised by that.”

“Isabelle could be this ordinary, rather sophisticated tea-drinking lady with her little cakes, and she could make the movement from that into a pathological, demonic mother figure quite seamlessly” – Neil Jordan

In Moretz (SuspiriaLet Me InCarrie) and Monroe (It FollowsThe Guest), Greta boasts two seasoned scream queens. The duo elicit convincing looks of terror – especially when Frances is locked inside a box – and their straight-faced performances complement the film’s sillier stretches. Why do certain actors suit the horror genre? “I cast Maika purely because of It Follows,” Jordan explains. “And with Chloe, I wanted a contrast between American innocence and European sophistication. It’s almost like a Henry James idiom. I saw her in the American remake of Let the Right One In, and I knew she had this Midwestern wholesomeness to counter this European guile.”

In other words, it’s Moretz’s Hollywood background versus Huppert’s austere arthouse past. Here, Huppert is playing with her reputation. In Greta’s musicianship, viewers might spot traces of Huppert’s sadistic loner from Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher; Greta’s murderous urges also call back to Huppert lugging a gun in Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie. But Greta is a purer, sillier form of evil. This isn’t Haneke, and it isn’t trying to be. Huppert topples over a restaurant table with larger-than-life comic timing, and she literally dances over a detective’s dead body.

Still, the psychological warfare of Greta is compelling, particularly how it eschews romantic longing. I can’t think of another stalker movie that didn’t involve a sexual component. “It’s about friendship and motherhood,” Jordan notes, “which I thought must be the greatest pathology of all that hasn’t been explored at all – the desire of this woman for a daughter.” To begin with, Frances greatly enjoys her lazy afternoons with Greta, even pledging to stick around “like chewing gum”. But upon discovering a cupboard of identical handbags, Frances is less than graceful in her exit; a kinder breakup could have prevented the mess. A tiny part of me sympathises with Greta – Frances broke her vow. “It’s horrible, isn’t it?” says Jordan. “The obsession, the captivity, the bondage – it’s just to keep Frances in Greta’s life, and to make her, in a strange way, fulfil her promise.”

As our interview wraps up, I mention that Huppert was pleasantly surprised by the healthy laughter generated during Greta’s world premiere. She did not, it seems, anticipate the film’s comic potential. “I wanted it to head towards areas of grotesque that are so grotesque that it’s almost unbelievable,” Jordan explains. “That’s what I like about writing. You can take an ordinary situation, and you can lead into situations of bondage and subjection that are inherent in the beginning. You’re drinking tea with a nice lady, and suddenly you’re stuck in a box.

“And there’s something tremendously funny about it. When Frances chops off Greta’s finger, it’s funny. It’s also grotesque.” Huppert’s dance made me chuckle a lot, too, I add. “Most actors would say, ‘Are you insane?’ To me, it was like a ballet. She’s playing Chopin. She turns it up. She likes to hear Chopin really loud. Then she comes in with the syringe. And she kills him while dancing, which is fun. Most actors wouldn’t be able to do it. But it’s where I wanted the film to go. If it’s funny, that’s great. Because it’s also grotesque, and it’s also horrible.”

Greta is in cinemas April 18. Watch the trailer below.