An act of kindness between a naïve girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and a lonely older woman (Isabelle Huppert) leads to a twisted and dangerous obsession in ‘Greta.’

In ‘Greta,’ a single white female exacts exquisite misery; in ‘The Heiresses,’ relationships get complicated with age and poverty

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
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Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz) has recently lost her mother and feels estranged from her father (he has “moved on” too quickly, she feels). So when Frances discovers a stylish handbag on a subway train, she jumps on the chance to treat its return like an adventure. She tracks down the owner, a French sexagenarian named Greta (Isabelle Huppert), who lives widowed in her spacious but empty Brooklyn townhome. Greta invites Frances in for coffee, they chat, and they seem to feed a mutual need for each other: One serving as surrogate mother, the other as chummy companion. “Everybody needs a friend,” Greta says at one point.

But things get creepy quickly. Greta seems clingy; her motives opaque. When Frances attempts to cut off their friendship, she finds breaking up really is hard to do.

In the pantheon of crazy stalker films — from Unlawful Entry to Cape Fear to Sleeping with the Enemy and on — Greta deserves a place alongside its three closest sisters: Misery, Single White Female and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, each of which put villainous yet pathetic women at the crux of their fulcrums, applying pressure and tension relentlessly until something snaps … either the characters or the audience. From a purely visceral level, it’s the audience that succumbs first here.

It probably should not have worked out that way. The director and co-writer, Neil Jordan, has a good hand at turning the screws with weird twists (his most famous, of course, is The Crying Game), but his output is erratic and eclectic, from supernatural (The Company of Wolves, Interview with the Vampire) to horror/thriller (The Brave One, Byzantium) to quirky gender-bending comedies (Breakfast on Pluto). It’s difficult to parse sometimes which way he’s headed here; there are moments of (seemingly unintended) humor, tropes of stalker films that border on the physically impossible a la Michael Myers, then psychosexual drama and — at one key moment more than halfway in — unapologetic gore. In fact, if you think too much about Greta, the plot holes begin to look like potholes — deep, dangerous, impossible to ignore.

So best not to do that if you want to maintain your sanity. Forget the choppy transitions, the almost too-efficient scene cutting that denies the characters (or the viewer) any knowledge momentum. The presence of Huppert, Moretz and Jordan lend Greta a pedigree, but its selling point is the cheap fun of freak-out scares, and the tease that “this could happen to me.”

Which could, possibly, give Greta some staying power. In the same way SWF triggered discussion of roommate hell and Cradle made every young mother question their choice of nanny, Greta makes the act of being kind to a lonely older lady seem as risky as having unprotected sex in Haiti. I can imagine think pieces on the loneliness of the urban woman of a certain age, of forging friendship with people outside your social circle, with trying to put yourself in the context of a broader community and the dangers that entails. So don’t expect me to be nice to old ladies for a while. I mean, it just makes sense to be safe.

Now playing at Landmark’s Magnolia.

An older woman (Ana Brun) meets a younger one (Ana Ivanova) while her partner is in jail in the slow, loping ‘Heiresses.’

The relationships at the center of The Heiresses are less frightening but no more functional. Chela (Ana Brun) and Chaquita (Margarita Irun) are also women in their 60s, though unlike Greta, they are not alone — they have each other, and have for 30 years. Though from wealthy families in Asuncion, Paraguay, they have fallen on hard times financially, and have resorted to selling off belongings — furniture, art, silver — in order to get by. But Chaquita has gone a step further, defrauding her bank and is sentenced to a jail term. Chela struggles to get by without her partner or an income, when an opportunity falls into her lap: Driving older ladies in the neighborhood around (even though Chela doesn’t have a license and hasn’t been behind the wheel in decades). Soon her impromptu Uber introduces her to a new client, the much younger Angy (Ana Ivanova), whose presence introduces a wrinkle into this staid life.

If you can’t tell from that description whether The Heiresses is a comedy, or a drama, or a romance, or a thriller… well, join the club.

Writer-director Marcelo Martinessi certainly has a fresh and specific take on getting older — from a female (and lesbian, at that) perspective, focusing on love old and new, with the stressors of money and pride and imprisonment and newfound independence converging. You can respect that point of view and creativity without buying its execution. The film is exceedingly slow and loping for stretches, and not for any discernible reasons.

If Greta jump-cuts too much to cleave to the clichés and traditions of a genre picture, The Heiresses doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, or how best to tell its story. Neither Brun nor Ivanova are experienced actresses, and while they have an ease and naturalism on camera, neither knows how to command a scene, or pull out subtext from the unspoken.

The film does, however, have a strong sense for place and culture. You can tell a lot from the ways in which Chela’s elderly neighbors gossip and how Chela and Chiquita worry about others’ opinion about the social structures, as well as the ways in which even the cash-strapped Chela treats her servant that appearances mean a lot here. In that ways, it fits perfectly in Dallas.

Now playing at the Angelika Mockingbird Station.