Review: 'Gloria Bell'

Sunday, March 24, 2019
A still from 'Gloria Bell'.

Lost in Translation

2019 / Chile, USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Sebastián Lelio / Opened in select cities March 8, 2019; locally on March 22, 2019

by:
Joshua Ray

Whether art should be evaluated on its own merits and removed from its cultural context or makers’ intentions is a question that has persisted throughout the history of criticism. That conundrum won’t be solved here — countless think pieces comparing remakes, sequels, and/or cinematic universes are probably being written right now — but Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, an American transposition of the director’s earlier Chilean feature Gloria (2013), proves that the matter is particularly thorny.

When a directors choose to remake their own material, they render both versions almost impossible to evaluate sans context. What is the purpose of the update? How do the two works compare? What conversation are they having with each other? Should those questions even be asked? Alfred Hitchcock’s two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much almost avoid the issue: His 1956 update uses mere germs of the ideas from the 1934 original, turning his pair of films into a case study in artistic and cultural development. Michael Haneke refreshed his 1997 Austrian provocation, Funny Games, remaking it shot-for-shot for American audiences in 2008 and adding yet another meta-textual layer to further implicate U.S. viewers as the ultimate spectators of screen mayhem. 

Unlike Haneke’s self-reflexive remake, Gloria Bell is not a trip down a condescending rabbit hole. However, it does beg the question: Why? Lelio’s latest is not a shot-for-shot remake, but it does use structure, dialogue, and shot set-ups similar to those of the original, even deploying comparable editing within analogous scenes. If anything, the film is actually closer to a band covering their own earlier material for a new fan base, albeit with more money to burn and new knobs with which they can fiddle. This is not to say that the new film is inherently wrong-headed, as Gloria Bell is a largely enjoyable facsimile, but who wouldn’t press play on New Order’s original “Temptation” over “Temptation ’87”? It’s the same old song, but the nuance is gone — or, at least, a new glossy veneer has been applied, obscuring a charming roughness. 

Because it shares virtually the same script as the first Gloria, the narrative is light on plot, turning on just a few incidents to realize a portrait of self-actualization in the midst of ennui. Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) is a 50-something divorcée with two millennial children (Michael Cera and Alanna Ubach). Between a mundane office job and living alone in an apartment beneath her landlord’s explosive son, she attends singles-only dance mixers. “I like to dance,” she shouts to a potential mate over the booming disco music. She finds herself taken with a retired naval officer, Arnold (John Turturro), who now runs a theme park complete with a paintball war zone to which Gloria takes a particular liking. (Take notice that “Chekhov's gun” also applies to paintball.) 

Arnold, divorced for just one year now, also has two children, but he’s not as willing to share in his family life as Gloria is with hers. That point of contention comes to a head during Gloria’s family dinner party, when Arnold comes face-to-face with her former husband, Dustin (Brad Garrett). The ensuing (non-)confrontation forces Gloria to examine her decisions and self-worth, with the help of a bag of pot her upstairs neighbor accidentally leaves behind. She waffles back and forth about her relationship with the off-kilter Arnold, before he ultimately decides their fate during a Las Vegas trip. 

The opening zoom shot into Gloria’s neon-lit face among the crowd of middle-aged partygoers reveals not only the character’s timidity in the sea of strangers, but also that Lelio is keen on staying rooted in his protagonist’s experience and her quest for romantic fulfillment. In both versions, the loose camera stays close to the central figure — forcing a viewer’s empathy with an all-too-underrepresented type. However, Lelio has also changed as a director over the years since the original Gloria’s release, winning a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar in 2018 for A Fantastic Woman and releasing his first English-language film, Disobedience, that same year. To that end, the relative visual austerity of Gloria in 2013 has been alternatively supplanted in the update by the Almodóvarian color-flooding of Woman and the art-house polish of Disobedience

Gloria Bell does contain gorgeous evocations of its Los Angeles setting, with the radiant Moore basking in the always-sunny city’s ambient glow, but all that visual lacquering begins to read as reverence for an actor rather than observation of a character. Paulina García, a legendary Chilean actor and winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival for the first Gloria, played the character as a stoic charmer who buries her strife until it ultimately erupts. Moore, however, is a Movie Star (probably the best of her kind), and here she is as effervescent as she’s ever been. Although she performs the woman as sometimes doddering and well meaning, there is nevertheless a bright resiliency that always shines through, even when the actor deploys her trademark tear-filled face-crack in a late scene.

Other modifications work to reconfigure the experience. A shimmery score by Matthew Herbert (who also composed strikingly similar music for Woman and Disobedience) replaces the strictly diegetic soundscape of the original. Two additional female characters are shoehorned in — Gloria’s mother (Holland Taylor) and her close work friend (Barbara Sukowa) — allowing for a couple of trite girl-power conversations to take place. The most monumental shift is in Turturro’s performance as Gloria’s romantic interest. The actor is capable of the disarming charm Sergio Hernández brought to that character before, but Turturro’s low-key, antisocial turn makes this film’s two leads’ on-again/off-again relationship less credible, Gloria’s desperation greater, and their ultimate uncoupling a relief instead of a heartbreak. 

Early in their courtship, Gloria brings Arnold to a double date with her best friend (Rita Wilson) and her husband (Chris Mulkey). A minor political disagreement about gun ownership causes the two women to exchange knowing glances about Arnold’s right-leaning views. It’s a beat absent from the original that’s emblematic of Lelio’s increasing penchant for telegraphing and audience hand-holding. Gloria Bell is filled with minor tweaks like these — the handling of Arnold’s shapewear for laughs is another — that come across as if an American studio was handing Lelio notes on his original to make the film more palatable for a mass audience. Nevertheless, both Glorias go down like glasses of fine wine, but one’s enjoyment is completely dependent on whether the preference is for a full-bodied red or a sweet white. 

Rating: B-