GLORIA BELL Review: Refined With Age
When you’re good at something, why would you want to do anything else? This seems to be the ethos behind the career of Sebastián Lelio, whose filmography over his last four films has focused exclusively on empathizing with the exploits of women trying to break through the social conventions that constrain them. Thematically, this could possibly be seen as redundant, yet Lelio has doubled down on this redundancy by writing and directing the English language remake of his 2013 film, Gloria. This time titled Gloria Bell with Julianne Moore in the lead, it’s at first baffling to consider why Lelio would want to make his own remake, but then you remember what a subtle and supreme talent Moore is and it all comes into focus as an attempt by Lelio to refine what he's done before to greater effect for a wider audience.
Gloria is a divorcée in her fifties, going to dance clubs on the regular in order to meet men her age while her adult children grow further apart from her as they need her less as a daily fixture in their lives. We watch as Gloria goes to work and does minor therapeutic exercises to reinforce her sense of stability, but she also lives alone and is shown making herself up for social presentability, a ritual that reinforces her loneliness and desire to fill a hole her family once filled. One night she meets Arnold (John Turturro), a fellow divorcé, and the pair hit it off, developing a relationship that supplements one another’s loneliness. However, as the pair become closer, it also becomes apparent that they value different things in their lives – the details of which are probably a spoiler if you haven’t seen the original film – and Gloria has to come to terms with what she wants out of life in the years to come.
Gloria Bell is a darkly comic film, but thankfully the butt of the joke is rarely Gloria herself. We aren’t always privy to Gloria’s inner thoughts or secrets, but we are welcome to her momentary perspective, as the camera never leaves her and the sincere absurdity of her friends and family carry us through the film's heavier themes of depression, midlife crisis, and codependency. This is a film built on empathetic nuance, painting its one villainous figure as more pathetic than malicious and its remaining players as either ignorant to or incapable of soothing Gloria’s unmet emotional needs. Gloria herself only wants one thing, and though she gets a measure of love from her children, it isn’t the kind of attention that makes her feel wanted or needed, particularly as her children’s lives take on meaning independent from her influence.
Moore is simply fantastic in the lead role, often communicating more in a look than in a line of dialogue, showcasing the inner turmoil of a woman who refuses to tell people her psychological burdens even as she moves through the world with a smile on her face and a goal to fill what she sees as a void in her life. That’s not an easy trick to pull off, but Moore makes it look so natural that it’s easy to become enamored and lost in her performance, to break into the reality of the film and fully believe the life story of the fictional Gloria Bell. Similarly spectacular is Turturro’s turn as Arnold, which walks a very difficult line of being superficially likeable but subtly discomfiting and deceptive. Turturro has always excelled at playing affably skeezy characters, but Arnold is so affable that it’s easy to forget the skeeze until telltale signs start to emerge, which makes seeing his faults unravel through Gloria’s eyes all the more devastating.
Lelio’s usual collection of faults are present, including a penchant for on-the-nose music cues and symbolism that’s perhaps a touch obvious, but Gloria Bell feels like a thesis statement on his dedication to improve his craft. Gloria Bell doesn’t quite hit the highs of A Fantastic Woman, what I would call his best film, but it also doesn’t hit that film’s similar pitfalls quite so hard. It’s as if by remaking his own previous work, Lelio is demonstrating how he has listened to criticism and is trying to hone his craft to perfection. Maybe that’s the core conceit of framing his career as of late around empathetic womanhood. Maybe it’s through his female characters that he seeks to become a better artist. Regardless of his intent, though, Gloria Bell is a worthy successor to the original, for though the path it treads is familiar, the journey along it has only grown richer.