Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell—the Chilean director’s new English-language remake of his own 2013 film Gloria, starring Paulina Garcia—would be a rewarding but familiar story if it featured a 25- or 35-year old protagonist, played by an actress under 40.
A character study of a divorced woman seeking love and self-fulfillment as she navigates the demands of family life, Gloria Bell with a younger heroine would still, inevitably, be a very good movie. Lelio is a director of both remarkable sensitivity and dazzling technical skill, able to capture tiny moments of emotional nuance between visual displays of transcendent beauty.
But here, Gloria and the actress who embodies her so fully, Julianne Moore, are both 60 years old, and it is this difference that makes Gloria Bell feel not just unique but revolutionary. Cinema, historically, has ill-served women over 50, tending to frame them as either figures of pity or sexless authority figures (whether mentors or harridans). Romantic and sexual desire in older women is often depicted as somehow unseemly—or even grotesque— and even more sympathetic portrayals (any number of late-period Diane Keaton movies, for example) tend to treat their longing as a subject for comedy.
Lelio, on the other hand, just sees Gloria as a woman: flawed, funny, fully-rounded, with the same complex range of human emotions and desires—for love, for connection, for sex, for identity—that are as essential at 60 as they are at 20. This seemingly obvious approach should not feel so novel, but it has allowed Lelio (and writer Alice Johnson Boher, who adapted his original screenplay for Gloria) to create a character of astonishing authenticity and depth. And it has allowed Moore—always a fantastic actress—the opportunity to shine in the best role of her long, impressive career.
Gloria Bell works in an insurance office by day: a place where she is clearly, affably competent, but a place where older women (like her friend Melinda, a poignant cameo by Barbara Sukowa) are undervalued and always in danger of being seen as expendable. Gloria has an ex-husband (an excellent Brad Garrett), and two grown children—Peter (Michael Cera) and Anne (Caren Pistorius)—who are understandably busy with their own lives, and whose brief attention and vicarious interests Gloria drinks gratefully in small, fleeting doses. She has a small apartment where she lives alone, and where a stray, phenomenally ugly hairless cat—”It’s like a dead thing,” Gloria observes—seems intent on making its home, turning Gloria into the lonely cat lady she has no intention of being.
And, at night, Gloria dances, going out to a purple-infused singles club where the clientele is all older and divorced, and where the music is composed of familiar ’70s disco tunes and ’80s love anthems. She flirts a little, she dances with silver-haired men, and she even goes home occasionally with one, but we do not sense either abject loneliness or sexual desperation: Gloria just loves to dance, and she is determined to live her fullest life.
As created and captured by Lelio, and perfectly embodied by Moore, Gloria is a marvelously realized character of a kind so rarely explored on screen. Moore is an astonishing beauty—for any age—but Gloria is not glamorous, or overly sexualized, in her styling or demeanor. She is not especially witty; she is a smart woman but not an intellectual; she does not even dance particularly well. She is, in every sense, “normal,” but Lelio and Moore show us the mesmerizing, even deeply erotic beauty in that normality, the irresistible life-force of a woman who is not special but who will not ever relinquish the right to feel special. As a result we root for Gloria—we revel with her in every new experience, and even feel her absorb every passing touch that lands on her body—but we do not ever pity her, or even worry about her. We feel, powerfully, how this woman we might otherwise pass by without noticing is nonetheless the unquestioned star of her own life’s story.
It is in the club that Gloria meets Arnold (a never-better John Turturro), the owner of a paintball park and a very recently divorced family man with a needy ex-wife and two adult but distractingly dependent children. They begin a relationship, full of new experiences for Gloria. (He takes her paintballing, and—in one of the best, complexly shifting scenes of the year so far—he reads her poetry.) But Arnold is perhaps not ready for a real relationship, torn by the demands of his family and displaying a startling emotional immaturity the moment he is even slightly overwhelmed. (Arnold is a supporting character in Gloria’s story, but we know that Lelio and Turturro have understood him and layered him as carefully and thoroughly as Lelio and Moore did Gloria herself.)
The playing-out of this imperfect love story is about as much “plot” as Gloria Bell has or needs, and it takes quietly surprising turns, finding moments of both unexpected sweetness and infuriating sorrow. It feels real, and so too do Gloria’s complex emotions as she lives it. Lelio is a master of show-don’t-tell storytelling, and we are frequently left to intuit from Moore’s quietly complicated performance what she is really feeling. Is she in love with this man? Or is this an experience she is relishing, in which even the arguments and turmoil are feeding her longing for new emotions, new encounters, new and unexplored possibilities in her life?
I have minor quibbles with Gloria Bell, most of which may be attributable to this being Lelio’s first film set in America. (Moving this story away from Lelio’s native Chile, he and Boher have naturally stripped it of its original political subtext. But they have not replaced that subtext with any real understanding of the story’s new setting. Gloria Bell takes place in what is probably intended to be a neutral, apolitical version of Los Angeles, but which comes across at moments like an insular world of clueless and sometimes cloying white privilege. I would have to watch again to be sure, but I also do not believe there is a single speaking role for a person of color in the film: a problem for a story set in one of the most diverse cities in America.)
But this limitation does not ultimately detract from the startlingly sensitive study of this unremarkably remarkable woman, or from Moore’s triumph in realizing her with aching authenticity. (Truly, the race for the Best Actress Oscar has begun.) In the final scene, just before she dances joyously to her signature song—Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” of course—Gloria’s best friend (Rita Wilson) asks her what’s wrong. “Nothing,” Gloria says after a moment, and by this point we know that’s true: Gloria—an irrepressible, indelible hero of everyday life—is going to be just fine.