The psychological thriller “Greta” gets off to a promising start: As a camera discreetly follows Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz through a New York City subway, Julie London sings a silky version of “Where Are You?” and director Neil Jordan’s name appears on screen. Viewers familiar with Jordan’s previous work — from his script for “Mona Lisa” to the game-changing “The Crying Game” — will understandably feel prepared to encounter the kind of twisty but sophisticated puzzlers he’s best known for.
Er, not so fast.
As an exercise in style, “Greta” turns out to be a maddeningly mixed bag. Its New York setting (which should be another character in this tale of modern urban manners) is continually undercut by obviously foreign filming locations — Dublin and Toronto did the honors here — and its themes of vulnerability, obsession and ritualized violence are no less drearily familiar for being given a pseudo-feminist patina. An intriguing two-hander bursting with potential instead becomes something we’ve seen before — up to and including bizarre pivots into sadism and body horror.
Moretz plays Frances, a recent Smith College graduate who has moved to Tribeca with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe), a wealthy fellow Smithie with no discernible job other than practicing yoga and tossing off cynical bon mots about crystal meth, colonics and how the Big (rotten) Apple is going to eat Frances alive. When the quiet, polite Frances finds an abandoned purse on the subway, she takes pains to find the owner, who turns out to be a French woman named Greta (Huppert), an eccentric but kind piano teacher who invites Frances for tea and conversation. Their relationship blooms, in part because Frances recognizes a nurturing figure she’s been missing since her own mother died, and soon the two are spending more and more time together, to the increasing consternation of the possessive Erica.
Alert readers will see the words “Huppert” and “piano teacher” in the same sentence and immediately sense impending doom. While “Greta” has none of the torturous rigor of Michael Haneke’s 2001 film “The Piano Teacher,” Jordan and co-screenwriter Ray Wright borrow heavily from other movies, especially classics from the paranoid canon of the late 1980s and early 1990s. With a nod to “Fatal Attraction” here and one toward “Single White Female” there — not to mention brief homages to Brian De Palma all the way through — “Greta” feels as time-warped as its title character’s cozy but slightly confining apartment. Despite some clever work with cellphones and text messages, the story and atmosphere feel impossibly forced, shoehorned into a milieu that never feels authentic enough to elicit real dread.
The artificiality isn’t helped by an intrusive and cliched score, which prods the audience toward jump scares and creepy reveals with the uninvited pushiness of a musical mansplainer, and which returns time and again to a tiresome motif from Liszt’s maudlin “Liebestraum.” When Greta and Frances adopt a sweetly decrepit mutt named Morton, the foreshadowing couldn’t be clearer, and his fate hangs over the proceedings like a soulful, sad-eyed threat.
As those proceedings ratchet up, logic and intelligence give way to plot mechanics and pulp thrills. On behalf of Smithies everywhere, this one is here to tell you they’re brave but not this stupid. “Greta” might pretend to turn the tables by presenting the sexualized predation of a young woman at the hands of a female malefactor instead of a male one. But the fetishistic leer is just as troubling and offensive. Disturbance eventually gives way to derangement in a story that grows exponentially more irritating the more preposterous it gets. As Morton might say: When it rains, it pours.
R. At area theaters. Contains some violence and disturbing images. 99 minutes.