Chilean director Sebastián Lelio has pulled a Michael Haneke with his latest film, Gloria Bell. In 2007, Haneke, an Austrian filmmaker, made an English-language version of his 1997 movie Funny Games that was a shot for shot remake. Lelio is calling Gloria Bell a “reimagining” of his own 2013 hit Chilean-set movie, called Gloria. I’ve seen both versions, and while they aren’t as exactingly identical as Haneke’s films apparently are (I’ve only seen the 2007 version of Funny Games), it’s pretty damn close. A few lines of dialog have been changed, one minor character is swapped out for another, and obviously the actors have their own unique take on the material, but otherwise the two movies are strikingly similar. Where Haneke used both versions of Funny Games as a sadistic (arguably hypocritical) critique of mindless violence in the media, Lelio’s films are a warm, ultimately soaring character study of one woman.
Gloria Bell has been divorced for 12 years. She’s a mother of two grown children who is nearing 60, and one of her favorite pastimes is dancing to disco at a local club. We never get a clear idea if it’s just the dancing she likes, or if her real goal is to meet someone. Lelio isn’t interested in laying out the plot points and character motivations that you might expect of a more conventional movie; he’s happy to just observe Gloria in her natural state.
Whatever her reasons for hitting the dance floor, Gloria does meet someone. His name is Arnold, and he is a more recent divorcée, having split from his wife just a year ago. Again, in a more conventional Hollywood movie – one firmly rooted in the romantic comedy tradition – you might expect the rocky, budding romance between Gloria and Arnold to be the sole focus of the picture. Their relationship does take up a healthy portion of screen-time, but Gloria Bell is far from being a conventional romantic comedy.
Instead of the meet-cute, conflict, resolution structure we’re used to, Lelio makes Gloria and Arnold’s relationship a series of events in what is a meandering, plotless structure. I mean that as a compliment. Gloria Bell is plotless like life is plotless. That gives our relationship with Gloria an intimacy it might not otherwise have. Lelio uses the strength of visual storytelling to show instead of tell.
We don’t hear her describe her life in dialog scenes with her kids or co-workers. We see her living her life: she dances, she works, she tries yoga for the first time in one of her daughter’s classes. It’s an empathetic portrait that puts a woman, not her relationship with a man, at its center.
Julianne Moore is the magnetic actress who brings Gloria to radiant life. In the original version, Paulina García also won praise for her portrayal of the character. She won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival for her performance. García is very good, but Moore is better. Obviously, I’m biased. I have a history and familiarity with Moore’s work that I don’t with García’s.
From her intensely idiosyncratic work in movies like The Big Lebowski and Maps to the Stars to powerful, commanding performances in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and the little seen Still Alice, Moore puts an indelible stamp on every character she portrays. Together, Moore and Lelio collaborated to make a movie with a fully realized female character.
The characters in Gloria’s orbit are also portrayed by a talented set of actors. John Turturro, an actor known for his own idiosyncratic performances, is Arnold. Turturro plays the character with a comedic awkwardness that doesn’t quite make up for Arnold’s unfortunate behavior. One example, but certainly not the worst, is when he up and disappears from a dinner party where he meets Gloria’s kids for the first time, because her ex-husband is there, which makes Arnold uncomfortable. The character’s other thoughtless act leads to the stand-up-and-cheer moment from Gloria in the climax.
Brad Garrett turns up in one scene as the aforementioned ex-husband, Dustin. We get the impression – mostly from his daughter’s behavior towards him, and a few stray lines of dialog – that Dustin wasn’t the best father. Michael Cera plays Gloria and Dustin’s son, but he doesn’t get much to do here. The most intriguing casting is a cameo from Sean Astin. His character speaks no words, but he has an effect on Gloria, nonetheless.
One specific difference between Lelio’s two films is the photography. Cinematographer Natasha Braier gives Gloria Bell a warm glow that is distinctly missing from the 2013 version, which was shot by Benjamín Echazarreta. The rather mundane look of the original film is surprising, because Echazarreta also worked on Lelio’s compassionate character study A Fantastic Woman, which I remember as having a much more sumptuous aesthetic.
In the lead-up to the production, Lelio said in an interview that reimagining his film with Julianne Moore in the title role was “irresistible.” As Gloria, Moore is just that. She gives her character’s discovery of her own resiliency and strength an effervescent quality that is infectious.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Julianne Moore, Julianne Moore, Julianne Moore! Don’t get me wrong, Gloria Bell is delightful and entertaining in its own right, but Moore makes the movie.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There is a hairless, basically homeless cat that plagues Gloria throughout the movie. It keeps getting in her apartment, despite her repeatedly kicking it out. It works as a great metaphor for her other major relationship in the movie.
- John Turturro’s character, Arnold, was once an obese man who had gastric bypass surgery to lose the weight. It’s not a point of ridicule, but I’m starting to get worn out on the trope of a thin character who used to be fat. It’s prevalent in the world of sitcoms (Monica in Friends, Schmidt in New Girl), and it’s always played for laughs at fat people’s expense. Again, that’s not the case here, but I’m ready for an end to this particular trope.
- The song Total Eclipse of the Heart has never been used to a more triumphant effect than it is in Gloria Bell.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- This was a press screening, which are usually rather subdued affairs. That was the case here; a few laughs here and there, but not much of a reaction from the crowd overall.