Upcoming thriller Greta, out Mar. 1, features Isabelle Huppert as a seemingly charming, lonely widow who won't let the young woman (Chloë Grace Moretz) who came into her life go. At first, the film seems to be a straight throwback to '90s female-obsession films such as Single White Female, Basic Instinct, and Fatal Attraction. But beneath the film's outlandish exterior lies a beating heart. With a focus on the trauma of loss and the kinds of relationships women build with each other, Greta subverts typical thriller tropes by shifting all roles — aggressor, victim, and concerned partner — to the film's female leads.
"I love how big, pulpy, saturated films like this can have a real story underneath the pulp," says Moretz, settling comfortably onto a plush hotel couch with a broad view of the East River.
Her character Frances seems a typical NYC twenty-something — still new to the city, sharing a loft with wealthy roommate Erica (Maika Monroe of It Follows) while working in a classy restaurant to make ends meet. But her mother's recent death and estrangement from her remarried father casts a pall over her life. Dutifully returning a purse found on the subway (against her roommate's suggestion), she meets French widow Greta, who lives on her own in a fairy tale house hidden within the city. The pair's mutual loneliness quickly draws them into an intimate closeness, but after a disturbing discovery, Frances cuts their relationship off. It's only then she learns that Greta doesn't give up quite so easily.
"It’s kind of a perfect storm of a movie, to be able to have that exciting, root for it [feeling] at the end, to be like ‘Yeah, get her!,'" says Moretz. "But also you know, feel what’s happening in [Greta's] heart." Speaking to the film's thriller elements Moretz notes, "In terms of the tropes and archetypes it’s something that we’d seen before...but [Greta] subverts the genre in the sense that it was an all-female cast, pretty much. It really is a film where three women of different generations interact, and I found that very exciting."
After Frances tries cutting Greta out of her life, she and her roommate receive a barrage of phone calls, texts, and even an unexpected and frightening in-person appearance, with little recourse for Frances as to how to stop Greta and get her life back. "I know from things I’ve been through that it is really difficult to get court orders on things like that, and show evidence of the fear someone can incite in you. It’s very difficult for the law to back you up. And that is scary!" Moretz says. It may be that Greta is perfectly aware of the limits of the law, which adds another layer of fear to Frances' experience.
Moretz's personal interest in the story doesn't stop there. "When I was younger I was really interested in abnormal psychology," she says, adding that both her character and surprisingly, Huppert's, were relatable to her. "I’ve dealt with ups and downs with my mother’s health through the years and so it really wasn’t hard to imagine [Frances'] state... If you know that feeling of loss without dealing with it and not processing it, it is simmering right under the surface, where you barely crack the lid and it starts to bubble out," the actor says.
As for Greta, "It was interesting to see that there wasn’t a generational difference in the amount of loss," Moretz explains. "They both had these massive cavities that needed to be filled. I think Greta obviously has a psychosis that takes it to a very dark and obsessive level, but you know, is there this world in which, if Frances goes in the wrong path could she become a Greta one day? Is it just time and that low simmer of loss and sadness that creates a monster?"
It's New York City where Greta hunts for companions, but the film was mostly shot in Ireland, which had some unexpected benefits. "The interiors we filmed in Dublin, and it was almost completely chronological, which was really helpful because [Huppert and I] built the friendship as we went," Moretz recalls. "It’s a genuine relationship, and it’s a genuine heartbreak when [Frances] finds those bags. It’s not just that she’s fearing for her life, it’s the fact that she feels taken advantage of, and it’s almost like finding out that your partner cheated on you."
As the relationship between Frances and Greta deteriorated in real time, Huppert and Moretz grew closer in proportion. "Isabelle, she became a friend and a confidante more than anything, you know," the actor says. "She really would ask me my opinion on things and we had quite a wonderful friendship that we struck up and continue to have to this day!"
She struck up the friendship with Huppert, but Moretz and Monroe had known each other "for years" before working together on the film. Not only was it fun and comforting, but having a real friend nearby helped Moretz understand the relationship between Frances and her roommate even better.
"I think to a lot of of the actual relationships you have with a best friend of years, and to kind of have someone being like, ‘What the hell are you doing?!’" she says. "Having that genuine sense, which usually in a movie would be a parental figure’s role or like, maybe a boyfriend character even… to be able to see that happening with best friends and see their sisterhood bond was another nice layer to the movie."
Indeed, there aren't many men in the film at all, and those that are there are fairly ineffective: police, a distant dad, and a private investigator (played by Stephen Rea, a frequent collaborator of director Neil Jordan) not only fail to help Frances, they can't even offer her the emotional support she ends up seeking in Greta, and actually found with Erica.
"At the end of the day, to us, it was a story about heartbreak, loneliness, and loss, and what does that do to a person’s heart?" Moretz asks. "You know — how much of a monster is Greta, and how much of an open wound is Frances? How much is she carrying that around with her, the weight of her mother passing away, six-seven months prior to that? And you know, dealing with that pain on a daily basis, how much does she open herself up to this… darkness?"
Greta's focus on people's need for emotional connection, and how that can both twist psyches and leave them vulnerable gives the film a heft that so many other thrillers, that portray victims and attackers far more flatly, lack. Instead of wanting to become another person by taking over their life and destroying them, Greta wants (then demands) a connection with Frances, and the sad part is that kind of relationship is what Frances misses and wants more than anything.
Though it's got the zing of a classic thriller, the real fear Greta leaves us with is that our greatest desire is also our greatest weakness.