As digital streaming platforms have eclipsed traditional cinema, there has been a renewed fascination with the erotic thrillers that defined the Hollywood look at the beginning of the 1990s. Counting Basic Instinct, Consenting Adults, Jade and Sliver among their numbers, these films typically adopted a hypercinematic style, pairing a sense of infinite narrative play with decadent urban tableaux. In retrospect, they feel like arguments for the power of cinema made at the moment at which cinema was started to glimpse its own horizons as the dominant medium of the twentieth century, incorporating the synthetic aesthetics of both digital film and digital gaming into their rich palettes, while also insisting on the widescreen supremacy of the cinematic image. For the most part, these films tried to take sensuous spectacle as far as it could be stretched for a white middle-class audience, usually starting with marriages or relationships that devolved into fetishistic, kinky or deviant ways of exploring pleasure. While various kind of sexual frisson were explored, these films nearly always came back to lesbian sensuality as the limit of their spectacular imperative – an image both for the spectacular potential of cinema, but also for media working to exceed it.
In other words, lesbian sexuality became a cipher for new media in the 90s erotic thriller, a way of figuring all those medial possibility that cinema needed to incorporate into itself at the very moment at which it glimpsed them on the horizon. Of course, it’s impossible to acclimatize yourself to something before you have even fully understood what it entails, so lesbian sexuality was also typically figured as an epistemological blind spot within this 90s mode, a placeholder for medial configurations that couldn’t be fully known or processed at the time. In that sense, the erotic thriller often plays as a kind of aborted dialectic gesture, a way for quality cinema, and its largely male viewers and critics, to move towards its opposite, and to incorporate everything it had once defined itself against, and that it might define itself against in the future. All of a sudden, then, high concept Hollywood releases drew upon the more feminine languages of melodrama, telemovie and soap opera in order to stave off a future that clearly couldn’t be contained by traditional cinematic syntax alone.
In doing so, however, the erotic thriller simply reiterated the male gaze that it was trying to adumbrate, since these films were only interested in incorporating everything outside their purview so long as they could still think of themselves as inherently cinematic. Whereas the 90s slasher film would start to challenge this definition, gamefying and digitising this slick aesthetic from within, the 90s erotic thriller took a more conservative approach, trying to absorb the import of an imminent media universe driven by gaming and digital technology, while also trying to assure its viewers that cinema would not only be unchanged, but would be intensified, by these transformations. Of course, cinema has been intensified in key ways by these broader media changes, but it hasn’t retained that claim to medial dominance, and medial consensus, that the erotic thriller wanted to arrogate to itself. What seems clear, now, is that there was a reflexive impotence to the erotic thriller, as every effort to exceed or extend cinema ended up doubling back upon cinema, producing films that became increasingly bloated, stagnant and saturated with atmosphere – the real fetish of this mode.
That very contradiction makes the erotic thriller a particularly fascinating object to the present moment, since it allegorises the shift from traditional to digital cinematic experience in a peculiarly eloquent manner, forming a kind of myth of origins for the world we now inhabit. As early as 2001, Mulholland Drive looked back at the erotic thriller in this way, embedding a conventional erotic thriller of its own, and a similar fixation with lesbian sexuality, within a broader and more diffuse narrative about the decline of Hollywood referentiality. More recently, films like The Duke of Burgundy have provided a kind of parodically and fully achieved version of the erotic thriller, in which the seamless dialectic of Hollywood self and digital other, or Hollywood self and arthouse either, is achieved under the sign of lesbian fetishism. Finally, films like A Simple Favor have translated this parodic erotic thriller effect back into the mainstream, recovering it as a form of collective nostalgia.
While Greta may seem narrower in scope than A Simple Favor, it belongs to this more recent movement towards restoring the erotic thriller as a part of mainstream cinematic discourse, albeit in a deflected and distorted way. Certainly, Neil Jordan’s film features a more niche cast than A Simple Favor – Chloe Grace Moretz and Isabelle Huppert – but part of the originality of the film lies in the way it dissociates these two actors from the indie or arthouse aspirations that might be expected to flow from their mere presence. More pervasively, whereas A Simple Favor focused on the narrative hyperactivity of the erotic thriller, Greta focuses more on the lushness of the erotic thriller, suggesting that it exuded a distinctively lesbian ambience that now looks quite different from the vantage point of the late 2010s. In part, that’s because this lesbian ambience was bound up with a series of medial conditions that no longer exist, but also because it was often used by erotic thriller to regulate a form of cinematic fantasy that no longer feels fully tenable in our world either.
After all, the point of the erotic thriller was to retain cinema as a threshold between reality and fantasy, and as a way of regulating our fantasies within a coherent and contained time and space. The erotic thriller could therefore not fantasise too drastically, since this would take it beyond the purview of cinema, and once again suggest the imminence of other media, which is perhaps why so much of the lesbian content of erotic thriller plays as softcore banality, rather than the galvanising cinematic spectacle it seems to be going for. It is that banality, above all, that preoccupies Greta, which revolves around the rapport between Frances McCullen (Moretz), a young waitress who finds a handbag left on a New York subway car, and Greta Hideg (Huppert), the woman who has left the bag to be found.
Before we even meet Greta, the whole film has a cruisey vibe, ensuring that every moment of female-female rapport takes on a quasi-lesbian quality. As a result, when Frances meets Greta, their relationship immediately takes on a quasi-lesbian quality as well, and then a lesbian quality, at least on Greta’s part. Both of the characters are quite bald stock figures – Frances is the ingénue from out of town, Greta is the urbane woman with a shadowy past – and their rapport proceeds in quite a peremptory way, as Greta grows needy, and Frances grows wary. The scenes are so short that the first act feels like a montage sequence, as Jordan disposes of, or perhaps dismisses, all the inevitable maternal imagery – Greta has never had children, Frances’ mother passed away a year ago – until the film seems to have exhausted everything that Hollywood film can say about the homoerotic rapport between an older and younger woman. Depending on how you see it, Greta and Frances either get the mother-daughter stuff out of the way, or simply absorb itand n work with it, but in either case they rob the spectacle of lesbian communion of the sublimity it aspires to in the erotic thriller, presenting a kind of intensified version of the lesbian banality that in fact propels the erotic thriller, and that is inextricable from these claims to cinematic sublimity.
In other words, Greta robs the erotic thriller of its constitutive fantasy of lesbian sexuality, which is perhaps why this often feels like a comic riff on The Piano Teacher too, and the way it presented the removal of fantasy as a cause for grief, trauma and self-annihilation. By contrast, Jordan’s film sees this removal as a kind of play, allowing us to move quite quickly and peremptorily through all the modulations of attraction and suspicious typical of an erotic thriller of this kind. Even at their most impassioned, Frances and Greta seem to be inhabiting their roles by rote, meaning that their rapport never intensifies in a regular way, but instead just sinks more comfortably into an awry or off-kilter normality. In that sense, the trailer is more consistently paced than the film – or makes it look more like a regular film – since Jordan’s direction takes us on so many lines of flight from the relationship that the two women never quite inhabit it in a sufficiently stable way for it to seem plausible, even as they are never quite removed enough for it to ramify as a sustaining fantasy either.
This atonality is thrown into sharp relief by the lushly etched backdrops – subways, restaurants, apartments – that in a typical thriller would collaborate with this remote fantasy of lesbian communion to insist upon the immersive and inimitable tonality of the cinematic medium itself. By contrast, these spaces are now discordant with the rote drama that plays out across them, which is perhaps why the lushness of Greta often feels a little too close to a stock image, just as the film often feels a little too close to a film you’ve seen before. The result might be described as lesbian irrealism, and tends to be most pronounced at odd disjunctions between analog and digital space, zones where the fantasy threshold of film that the old erotic thriller tried to reinstate has been irreversibly disrupted. Accordingly, we move from a character who is literally unable to see Greta despite receiving text messages to suggest she is right behind her, to a scene when Greta teaches Frances to use a flip phone before stalking her on Facebook, to the final stage in Greta’s plans, which involves taking over Frances’ phone, and claiming her text messages and voices messages as her own. In each of these cases, the disconnect between the lush backdrops and banal sensuality produce a trickle-on disconnect between digital and analog space, as if the removal of a spectacular lesbian horizon has robbed the film of its assurance of itself as film.
That may explain why Greta never feels fully present in the film – or, rather, why the film never seems capable of “fixing” Greta within its purview. Instead, she merely appears, usually in short bursts, while her name takes on as much of a presence as her actual person, with Jordan inserting it into dialogue much more than would normally occur, especially dialogue that Greta herself is speaking. In the classic erotic thriller, the lesbian femme fatale tended to be presented as both corporeal and incorporeal at once, a way of emphasizing cinema’s ongoing and visceral relevance to the body, but also the capacity of cinema to abstract our bodies to widescreen experiences still unmatched by any other medium. By contrast, Greta here never feels quite incorporeal or corporeal, dislocating us from the dialogue, which often feels dubbed as a result, and preventing any clear sense of lesbian communion or consummation, at least as a singular or stand-alone spectacle. It feels apt that Greta’s main tool for coercing her victims is anaesthetics, since the whole film feels mildly drugged as well, or even depressed, searching for a spectacular high, or a moment of sensuous climax, that its inherent banality prevents us from ever experiencing or achieving.
Whereas the typical erotic thriller often ended with a lurid arthouse conceit, the opposite thus happens here, as the rapport between Greta and Frances grows more domestic and normcore as the suspense heightens – not unlike the rapport between Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively’s characters in A Simple Favor. By the end of the film, it’s not even threatening that Greta might escape from the cage where she is trapped, nor is it implausible that Frances might be a lesser person without her, and even start to miss her, despite the way the climax plays out. In its own wry manner, then, Greta presents a form of lesbian codependence that can survive all the ways the erotic thriller has shaped lesbian representation up until the present moment, while suggesting in the process that the threshold between cinematic fantasies and those of other media can survive with more fluidity and porosity than the erotic thriller initially believed. The result is one of the best post-Piano Teacher roles for Huppert, grappling eloquently with her legacy, and her near-pastiche status, by offering her a character whose name always precedes and contains her, as well as a high point in Jordan’s late work, along with an eloquent companion piece to The Crying Game, itself already a revision of the erotic thriller that was years ahead of its time.