Everything is pointing to an inescapable fact in Gloria Bell’s (Julianne Moore) life: she is getting old. Her kids are getting older – one even has a kid of their own – and the other is pregnant. Her ex-husband has remarried, while she remains single. Her best friend at work is lamenting her impending retirement, afraid of having to work until she is 80 due to her dwindling 401K. The fact that she herself is about to turn 60 does not help, nor does being constantly reminded of her ostracization from society as she returns home to her empty apartment. Even the constant appearance of a hairless cat that is not her’s, but sneaks into her apartment seems to be a harbinger of the end. There is no hope. She is to be alone forever, so she might as well just drop the pretense and become a “cat lady”. That is until Arnold (John Turturro) walks into her life, reopening the possibilities of finding both love and herself again.
For years, Gloria has seemingly walked through a haze. She goes dancing somewhat frequently in an attempt to “put herself out there”, but as Gloria Bell opens, it is obviously not working. Instead, she stands all alone by the bar, surrounded by people who hardly even notice her. She has drifted out of life, left in a perpetual cycle where her kids no longer talk to her and where she lives beneath a loud young man who seems to be having a nervous breakdown. That all changes when she meets Arnold on one of her dancing nights. However, this is not a romance film in the conventional sense. Gloria and Arnold certainly share many romantic scenes together and frequently have sex, but their relationship is a woefully flawed one. Arnold may have satisfied a desire for companionship that Gloria had long tried to suppress, but he is not the solution to her problems. Instead, the solution for Gloria is herself. She had so long been shackled by societal rules and mourning what she no longer had (husband, kids, youth) that she had forgotten what she does have. For this, Gloria Bell feels like one woman’s journey to being herself and loving that self.
It is a long journey to this realization. Gloria Bell is not without moments where one will be quite upset with her for constantly going back to Arnold, no matter how many times his immature and shady behavior makes it obvious he is not a good person. It is a gradual process for her, one that director Sebastián Lelio takes the audience along for every step as she faces the realities of her situation. Her romance with Arnold is frequently hampered by his volatile personality, which can change him in a second from kind and romantic to apathetic and neglectful. It is an absurd situation that she finds herself in, one that she cannot help but return to as she is so desperate to not feel lonely. Lelio surrounds her with reminders of this in the soundtrack as she listens to ‘No More Lonely Nights’ when she finds Arnold and is then confronted by ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ when they break up. Her world seems to always remind her of her isolation, but what is solemn at first becomes uplifting by the end. Spinning around on the dance floor as ‘Gloria’ plays, she may be on her own, but her energy is infectious and self-affirming. She is no longer looking for a man to dance with, instead spinning around and enjoying her own company.
As Gloria, Julianne Moore is excellent and gracefully welcoming. She excels in capturing the subtle sadness lurking beneath Gloria, showcasing so much in pure body language- such as singing along to a song in the car or exasperatingly staring at the ceiling while lying naked in bed. At times, she is at rock bottom and seems to be on an island all on her own. Yet, Moore’s dynamic performance also excels in capturing the energy and charisma of Gloria as she slips into her naturally infectious personality. Casually reminiscing with her family or bounding about on the dance floor, there may be that sadness lurking over what she has lost, but the film feeds off the power of the character losing herself in the moment. On Gloria’s journey to finally look ahead with joy, Moore exudes the desire to dance until the clock runs out.
Gloria Bell proves to be an incredibly subtle, yet moving experience. The popping cinematography from DP Natasha Braier seems determined to surround Gloria with bright colors or large crowds while she gets lost in it, dwarfed in extreme high-angle shots or isolating medium shots. As she overcomes this isolation, the film itself begins to feel like a triumph. The aforementioned closing scene where the isolating medium shots of her dancing is transformed to a liberating and dizzying moment exemplifies this feeling. Lelio subtly weaves that emotion into the fabric of the film, never being upfront with the emotion but layering it into the film’s visuals or leaning on Julianne Moore to draw it out. By the end, it feels so tangible, so real, and so ready to be connected with if a viewer is just willing to give themselves over to the film. It may be a little withdrawn, but it still wears its heart on its sleeve in the same way that its protagonist does. Bits of comedy sprinkled throughout- such as a liberating scene with a paintball gun- only amplify this connection, adding a human touch to this greatly enjoyable celebration of a woman falling in love with herself again. In the end, it all comes together in service of its protagonist, perfectly blending together artistry with emotional depth.
Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell is a wonderful character study and celebration of a woman finding herself again. As memories of her youth pass or age, she takes each life change as a harbinger of the end. Wallowing in that sense of loss and clinging desperately to whatever brings her a feeling of youth – especially when it comes to love – Gloria is an often sad figure. Yet, it is only through this journey that she will find what she was truly missing all along. It was not her youth, but her love of life and a comfort in who she has become. Featuring Julianne Moore in yet another great performance, Gloria Bell is a vibrant and honest film.