Is it permissible these days to make a movie that does what art is supposed to do, which is to delight? One that entertains without lecturing? Not if it’s to be a critical success. When the movie mavens tell you that a movie is “good” they mean morally good, and the critics are the arbiters of morality. To be good in this sense, the movie must instruct the viewer on the questions du jour: class, race, religion, gender, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression. The correct portrayal of power relationships is de rigueur.
Pardon my French — I’m about to talk about Gretaand its star, the incomparable Isabelle Huppert. Greta is a film that leavens horror and suspense with comedy, sophistication and style. It serves up what you want, not what the scolds think is good for you. Like the eponymous Greta in the movie, it offers soupe de poisson and risotto, where the critics would have you presented with a bowl of spinach and broccoli and tell you to “just eat it up.”
That Greta is a decidedly woman-empowering movie — the villain (Greta), the victim (Frances), and the unlikely hero (Erika) are women — is insufficient to satisfy the feminists. First because they are all rich, white, and cis-gendered and as such cannot generate an appropriate conflict. And then there’s Isabelle Huppert who refused to condemn an op-ed in Le Monde, signed by 100 prominent French women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, that called the MeToo movement the French equivalent of a “Puritanical witch hunt.”
“It’s important that all voices be heard,” Huppert said, “that there’s not too much overzealousness on either side.” That statement, moderate as it may appear to the unwoke, is enough to get your movie panned even if the audiences love it.
Huppert is brilliant in the role of Greta. A psychopathic serial killer, she befriends vulnerable young women in need of a mother figure, stalks them when they try to break away, uses drugs to sedate them as she subjects them to terror, psychological abuse, and physical torture. She’s Hannibal Lecter dressed in Chanel.
And yet, we don’t feel disgust for Greta. There’s something about her relentless style and poise that cushions her monstrosity. Even as her behavior becomes more disturbing, she becomes larger, more worldly, more beautiful. In a spectacular scene where she shows up at the toney restaurant where Frances is a server, publicly humiliates her by throwing a glass of Chablis which Frances must clean up (“it’s a bit like you; promises a lot, then disappoints”), and then overturns her table in a fit of rage, she wears the only costume in the film that is obviously and breathtakingly Chanel, a signature tweed suit that will cause even the most intimidating maître d’ to cower. It serves to distract the audience from the horror in the scene that just transpired.
This technique is used throughout the movie. Horror happens, but there’s no time to focus on it. In one incident, during a psychologically brutal cookie-making tutorial, a half-drugged Frances chops off her teacher’s pinkie finger before passing out. Greta stays in character, calmly treating her wound before donning a pair of jeweled cashmere gloves. “A woman is known by her shoes and her gloves,” she instructs Frances after she regains consciousness to find herself chained inside a box, “and we are nothing if not ladies.” This is the kind of horror that makes you laugh, not because it’s campy but because it’s clever.
The other characters are less developed. Chloë Grace Moretz plays Frances, naïve and vulnerable. She’s grieving the loss of her mother and can’t forgive her father for having moved on. He pleads for her understanding, “I’m a good man, Frances!” But she’s immoveable, “Now you’re starting to sound like Bill Clinton,”
And finally, there’s Erika, the airhead who surprisingly comes through as the hero. Played by Maika Monroe, she, like Frances, is a recent Smith graduate, and the girls are now roommates in a loft apartment in the trendy Tribeca area of New York which her parents gave her.Her loyalty and devotion to Frances allows her to draw upon hidden inner resources, and she turns from a spoiled rich kid interested only in yoga, shopping, and partying into a smart, tough-as-nails detective, capable of outsmarting the indomitable Greta at her own game, as she risks her life to find and rescue her friend.
Erika might be a female, but that doesn’t make her a feminist hero. I think we can assume that had she been a black girl from the ’hood, Greta would have been better received by the critics.
When the critics rave about a movie, I ask myself why. Often, I will find the answer in the plot description. If it yields up a basket of looney left-wing issues, I’ll probably give it a pass. Similarly, a little research on a movie that has been panned can convince me to give it a try.