Gloria Bell is Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s adaptation of his own critically acclaimed film, Gloria (which I didn’t see). This time it takes place in America and stars Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore. The pedigree is certainly there. But for me, something got very lost in translation.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I will share that Gloria Bell is currently sitting with a gaudy 96 percent Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. So I’m clearly on an island here, but I found the film mystifying and even off-putting.
In theory I should love a film about the sex life of a middle-aged divorcee. Honestly, any film that acknowledges that female sexuality doesn’t shrivel up and die after the age of 50 should be cause for celebration. But after spending roughly 110 minutes in Gloria’s company, I still don’t know how I was supposed to feel about her. I couldn’t even describe her character’s arc. If Gloria went on an emotional journey, someone forgot to give me the GPS.
I’m generally a huge fan of Julianne Moore, but I didn’t understand her choices here. She plays Gloria as gauzy, wishy-washy, muted. In some senses, Gloria is that overlooked middle-aged woman we’ve seen in films before: “It’s your mother,” she adds hastily at the end of voicemails she leaves her grown daughter and son. (She’s so insecure she’s not sure they would recognize her voice.) But there’s little sense that she’s belittled or overlooked in life. She works for an insurance company, and although we see very little of her professional life, there’s no condescending boss, no obnoxiously flirty coworker. Instead, she has a best friend at work who is being forced into early retirement. She shouts “You go, girl” affirmations with her friend out the window.
Gloria seems to have a deep streak of melancholy about her, but she’s no wallflower. She goes to a dance club that caters to the 50-plus set—the music is mostly disco with some early New Wave thrown in—and drinks martinis and dances with randy older men. Her children, in fact, don’t ignore her—they love her and are reasonably involved in her life. They have problems of their own. Peter (Michael Cera) has been abandoned by his wife and left to raise their baby by himself. Anne (Caren Pistorius) is in love with a Swedish big wave surfer who seems unlikely to put down roots. Gloria also has good friends—she goes to dinner parties; attends weddings—and is still close to her glamorous, if somewhat death-obsessed mother (Holland Taylor).
She’s pretty—and she knows it. At a bar one night, a woman asks if she’s had work done. “No,” she replies with a laugh, flattered.
So no, she’s not a loser. Not really a pushover or a mouse—although Moore plays her so tentatively she seems like maybe we’re supposed to think she’s those things.
Into this equation comes Arnold (John Turturro), a recently divorced man who makes eyes at Gloria at the over-age disco. They dance, hook up, and start dating each other. Arnold seems nice enough. He’s apparently a conservative—in one scene, he argues that everything is cyclical and climate change is overhyped. I thought this might be a bone of contention. Will Gloria argue with him? Challenge his assumptions? Nope. This is one of many random details dropped into the film that amount to nothing.
Another: Gloria has an upstairs neighbor, a young man who seems to be having a breakdown of some sort. He yells at the walls. Gloria calls the landlord, who happens to be the neighbor’s father, and gently informs him his son isn’t well. At one point, the neighbor accidentally drops a bag of weed in front of Gloria’s door. She smokes it. That’s it. That’s the guy’s entire function in the film.
There’s also a stray cat that keeps sneaking into Gloria’s house. But not any old cat: A Sphynx cat, which is absurd. There’s no such thing as stray Sphynx cat, only Sphynx cats that have escaped from the home of a rich person. But I digress. The cat is supposed to represent . . .death, maybe? Because its form is so skeletal? (In another scene, Gloria literally watches a street puppeteer with a skeleton marionette.) Or maybe it’s supposed to represent our human need to connect with other living creatures? At first, Gloria hates the cat. Later, she warms up to it. Your guess is as good as mine.
So back to Arnold. He also has grown adult daughters who are completely dependent on him. They keep calling him and he’s expected to dote on them, accommodate their every whim, which he does. He’s not a bad guy but he has issues—possibly too many to overcome.
At one point, Arnold says that his children never worry about him. His job is to worry about them. This is a sort of interesting point that the film flirts with: The idea that parenthood changes us in a such a way we lose a bit of our own agency, our own personhood. The idea isn’t really explored, but it’s there, it’s something. And that’s kind of it. I was discussing the film with my film critic pal Tomris and she suggested that what I was looking for—meek middle aged woman finds her own voice and power—is a cliché. That what this film gives us—woman lives her life, we simply get to observe it—is more profound, more unusual, more challenging. Fair enough. But I never felt like I got to know Gloria well enough to even care about her journey from A to A, as it were. What was I supposed to want for her? Is wanting to want things for my heroine too pedestrian? Am I hopelessly bourgeois to want a character arc? In a final scene, as she sings along to the song Gloria—natch—the woman getting her groove on on the screen in front of me might as well have been a complete stranger.