The line between brilliant and bad is very slim when it comes to melodrama. Last year, Paul Feig tiptoed along that line throughout the lurid A Simple Favour, only to tumble merrily off it and into a vat of ungainly nonsense during the third act avalanche of twists upon twists. At times, that film was like watching a dozen M. Night Shyamalan movies at once. A year later, it’s The Crying Game director Neil Jordan who’s stepping on to the slender divide between success and failure with Greta – the most enjoyable slice of delirious, shrieking melodrama I have seen in a while.
At its core, it’s a very simple idea. Naive youngster Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) has just moved to New York City and is living in a pretty swanky loft with her former college roommate Erica (Maika Monroe), who warns Frances that “this city is gonna eat you alive”. Things get weird in a hurry when Frances returns a handbag she found on the subway to its owner – kindly French widow Greta (Isabelle Huppert). Keen to help Greta feel a little less lonely, she agrees to spend time with her, at least until she makes a discovery about her apparently sweet new buddy that makes her consider Erica’s warning as scarily prescient.
The beauty of Greta is that the actors play everything completely straight, despite the fact that the movie is snooker loopy beyond rescue. Jordan definitely has the self-awareness to know exactly what brand of movie he’s making and he brings that joyous trickery to every element, using over-cranked editing to enhance the offbeat humour. Javier Navarrete’s outrageous score is another MVP, coming across like Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho music if it were parsed through one of Spinal Tap’s amplifiers. It’s a delicious odyssey of screeching strings, clanging percussion and ominous chords and it is deployed with exceptional comic timing.
It won’t surprise anyone, though, to hear that it’s Isabelle Huppert who emerges from Greta as the biggest talking point. She’s utterly believable as a manipulative psychopath, whether she’s chewing a stick of gum with sinister flair or dancing around her home to Chopin in stockinged feet with staccato movements, as though she were a character in a stop-motion animation. There’s never any question as to whether she’s anything other than pure evil, with Jordan wisely jettisoning any potential themes about the corrupting power of loneliness pretty early on.
This isn’t a film that dwells in the land of nuance and it’s all the better for it. Huppert lets her crazy flag fly, while Maika Monroe – star of It Follows – is clearly having a great time as a prototypical millennial character, who’s a little vapid and constantly distracted by something or other. Moretz gets a less showy job to do, but rises to the occasion as she always does in a role that essentially holds the movie’s considerable lashings of insanity together.
There are times at which Greta feels as if it’s spinning out of control, but Jordan has a tight hand on the story leash and the script delivers its twists and turns at precisely the right moments. Most importantly though, perhaps above all else, Greta is consistently and delightfully surprising. When so much multiplex fare is safe and predictable, it’s refreshing to watch something that has the ability to induce genuine gasps from an audience.
Greta doesn’t just walk the tightrope between good melodrama and bad melodrama; it rides across it on a unicycle while playing guitar and singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Backwards. In Swahili. But when it’s this much fun, you just have to sit back and let the chaos work its magic.
Dir: Neil Jordan
Scr: Ray Wright, Neil Jordan
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea, Zawe Ashton
Prd: Lawrence Bender, James Flynn, Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti
DOP: Seamus McGarvey
Music: Javier Navarrete
Country: USA, Ireland
Run time: 98 mins
Greta is in UK cinemas from April 18.