Romantic drama, rated R; The Screen, Violet Crown; 3.5 chiles
It’s not just the disco soundtrack of Gloria Bell that’s reminiscent of the 1970s. It’s the substance of Chilean director Sebastián Leilo’s film, which asserts itself as a modern-day version of the classic “women’s pictures” of that decade. Think Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and especially An Unmarried Woman (1978).
Like the heroines of those movies, Gloria Bell (a transcendent Julianne Moore) is a free-spirited single woman of a certain age who is navigating murky relationship waters. Leilo, who won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2018 for the transgender drama A Fantastic Woman, wrote and directed Gloria Bell as an English-language remake of his 2013 film Gloria.
A fifty-something divorcée who loves to boogie, Gloria gets her kicks on the dance floor during ’70s nights at singles bars. Besides a bit of creeping anxiety about impending spinsterhood, she is mostly content with her lot in life. She has an amiable ex-husband (Brad Garrett) and two fairly normal grown children (Michael Cera and Caren Pistorius) who tolerate her helicoptering TLC. She’s unfazed by the disruptions in her world, which include a mentally disturbed upstairs neighbor and the hairless cat that keeps wandering into her apartment.
When Gloria meets a divorced former Navy officer and current paintball instructor named Arnold ( John Turturro, more vulnerable than usual), the ignition of a new relationship threatens her balance. Their chemistry on the dance floor and in the bedroom is undeniable, and there’s a sweetly appealing neediness to Arnold. But he comes with an annoying ex-wife and two immature daughters, each of whom has an uncanny sense of timing that throws frequent wrenches into the fledgling couple’s dates. And then there’s the disappearing act he tends to pull when Gloria needs him most.
But as the effervescent Gloria declares to her friends, “When the world blows up, I hope to go down dancing.” Nothing much happens in Gloria Bell, which is part of its breezy realist charm. The film is refreshingly free of contrivances, romantic clichés, and a desperate third act, instead electing to depict middle-aged life and love in all its natural complexity. Gloria and Arnold’s affair ventures into territory that is interesting precisely for its familiarity: the universality of their problems is oddly comforting. Most captivating is Moore’s ability to project a progression of uncertainty, pain, and Teflon inner strength in the space of just a few minutes or a couple words.
When she dances with reckless abandon to Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” in a gratifying moment of self-empowerment, we’re right there with her, grooving to Leilo’s gorgeous flashing neon lights and wondering along with the song lyrics. “How’s it gonna go down? Will you meet him on the main line, or will you catch him on the rebound?” No matter what she decides, Gloria’s going to be just fine.