Over the past five years, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio has grown to become one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, culminating in his well-deserved Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for ‘A Fantastic Woman’ (2017). His first major international success though was with ‘Gloria’ (2013), a portrait of a woman in her 50s looking for love in Santiago. The film received enormous acclaim and took the Berlin Film Festival by storm, including awards for the Ecumenical Jury Prize for Lelio and the Silver Bear for Best Actress for Paulina García’s incredible lead performance. An English-language remake was inevitable, but rather than handing the duties over to someone else and risking a dilution of what made ‘Gloria’ so wonderful in the first place, Lelio decided to handle the remake himself. Now with Julianne Moore in the lead role, ‘Gloria Bell’ returns him to one of the most important creations of his career so far.
Gloria Bell (Moore, ‘Still Alice’) is looking for someone to share her life with, twelve years after her divorce from her first husband. Out dancing one night, she meets Arnold (John Turturro), a recent divorcee also desperate to make a new connection, and she thinks she’s found what she is looking for. However, both Gloria and Arnold’s respective pasts weigh down on them, and Gloria is forced to ask herself exactly what it is she needs to find - a partner or herself.
In the hands of a less-imaginative director, ‘Gloria Bell’ risked being a standard colour-by-numbers retread of the original, especially if the director wasn’t as invested as Lelio has consistently demonstrated in female stories and experiences. Thankfully, his return to the material makes ‘Gloria Bell’ an inspired remix of ‘Gloria’, maintaining what works while taking advantage of what has changed, both in the casting and context, and in Lelio’s evolution as a filmmaker. Lelio and co-adapter Alice Johnson Boher don’t deviate from the narrative and structure of the original, and many of the iconic moments and visual motifs have been carried over. What gives it all new life is how much his recent work with ‘A Fantastic Woman’ and ‘Disobedience’ has grown his understanding of how to tell female stories and depict female empowerment. Gloria’s journey for love and companionship may be a familiar and intimate story, but to Lelio it’s an almost mythological quest, where the hero much overcome her hubris (in Gloria’s case, her need to define herself by her worth in the eyes of others rather than herself) through a series of challenges (her complex relationship with Arnold and with her children) and come to a place of understanding and enlightenment. Lelio portrays women as goddesses, revels in the beauty and strength inherent in their femininity, and holds them firmly at the centre of his films.
‘Gloria Bell’ is never interested in playing Gloria’s search for love for laughs. Her freedom and abandon is often wonderfully funny, but the film is far more interested in celebrating her awareness of her sexuality. This lies at the heart of Julianne Moore’s performance, one of the best of a career with no shortage of incredible performances. Gloria’s desperate need for connection bubbles under the surface, but Moore fully embraces her optimism and vivacity, filling her with laughter and light and boundless energy. It’s impossible not to love Gloria, even with her flaws, because of how open she is. She's a generous soul to a fault, driven by the belief that the best way to find herself is through another. She’s a character that allows Moore to embrace all of her greatest qualities as an actor, from her intoxicating charisma to her intricate attention to detail to her infectious, bubbling laughter. It only emphasises that calling a performance by a middle-aged women where she’s sexually aware "brave" is bullshit, that women have the right to see themselves depicted on screen as such with integrity and respect. Both in her performance and the way Lelio constructs the film around her, Moore and Gloria demand that respect and celebration. I couldn’t fault her performance, and in a just world, she’ll be eating award season alive at the end of the year.
Sebastián Lelio portrays women as goddesses, revels in the beauty and strength inherent in their femininity, and holds them firmly at the centre of his films.
It’s also a thrill to see Lelio evolve his idiosyncratic style further with ‘Gloria Bell’. His work dances deliciously on the edge of magic realism, injecting the world of his films with a theatrical sense of light and colour. Lelio is a master of the art of ecstasy, those moments of pure cinema where sound and colour and movement and light all culminate symphonically to reveal the inner life of a character in a way only cinema can. As with ‘A Fantastic Woman’, he builds a sumptuous language - this time with remarkable cinematographer Natasha Braier and returning composer Matthew Herbert in particular - where you believe that anything can happen, that the world around Gloria could bend and burst into spectacle at her will at any moment, and the fact that it never does until maybe its final moments makes it all the more satisfying. Lelio’s command of his work is only getting stronger with each film, and his confidence with this material allows him to stretch his wings even further, reaching the same level of visual and aural ecstasy as ‘A Fantastic Woman’.
‘Gloria Bell’ is a joy of a film, a celebration of female sexuality and empowerment only made better by the meeting of a director and an actor dedicated to such a celebration. The ghost of the original is always there but never a distraction, with Sebastián Lelio preserving all its magic while allowing this new film to breathe and find a voice of its own. This is Lelio at his best and Julianne Moore at her absolute best, delivering one of the finest performances of her career and one of the best performances of the year. This is a film that sits with you for days afterwards, not leaving you haunted or contemplative, but revived and exuberant, giddy at the joy that comes from the greatest journey towards love that any person can undertake - not the love of others, but the love of one's self.