Gloria Bell’s in Hell

Every now and then I like to see an escapist movie, pure entertainment, nothing that pretends at depth or significance. So I went to see Gloria Bell, starring Julianne Moore in the title role, and as a shallow reason to eat a small bag of buttered popcorn, it didn’t disappoint. I had decided ahead of time what kind of a New Age confection the movie was going to be, based on the poster (Moore dancing with abandon) and the tagline (“Live. Love.”), and it came through.

The second pleasure after watching a movie you know is going to waste your time is ripping it to shreds afterward. You check your brain at the door, and then you take it back with a vengeance. During this process, however, I went from thinking Gloria Bell was an escapist stinker, to thinking actually, it’s pretty good. No, it’s more interesting even than that, and now I think it’s something you ought to go and see. I went to the movie to escape my existential loneliness. For Gloria Bell, there will be no escape from hers.

Gloria Bell is a reprise of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s first Spanish-language Gloria, and it operates on two levels. The first is your basic Hallmarkian psycho-drama: an unfulfilled white female consumer, finding herself alone at middle age, discovers love and liberation via laugh therapy, martinis and sex. Gloria is so very nice a person that she deals with her disturbed upstairs neighbor by calling his mom with her concerns about his mental stability, apologizing profusely as she does so. She finds love quickly enough, with a semi-attractive man, in a singles club for people of a certain age. She sings in her car, too, to the same songs she probably sang to as a teenager. Has she really grown up? Have we?

The sound track is a presence in Gloria Bell. Big love ballads from the 70’s and 80’s define and describe the moments on her way to the connection she so desires. A Little More Love (Olivia newton-John), followed by Never Can Say Good-bye (Gloria Gaynor), followed by Total Eclipse of the Heart (Bonnie Tyler). The lyrics describe her mood and prophecy her future, all the way up to the song that closes the movie, you guessed it, Gloria: “If everybody wants you, why doesn’t anybody call?”

The second level of the story is accomplished via the accumulation of visual details and the discipline of a director, who knows how to tell a story by not telling a story. And that is a story of the utterly scoured out bleakness of white middle-class American existence. The social fabric is not just frayed, not just thin, but gone. It doesn’t exist. Without a context, we are atoms hoping to randomly collide, keeping our fingers crossed that it go well when we do. We meet Gloria’s family first, in her voice messages to her adult son and daughter, whom she hasn’t heard from in a while, although they appear not to live that far away. At the end of each voice message, she repeats, ‘This is your mother,’ as if she is reminding them, and herself, that they have one. Her son is a new father, whose wife ‘is finding herself in the desert.’ The baby is crying in the next room, but the son has more attention for his device than for his child. Gloria’s daughter is in love with an extreme surfer who searches the planet for big waves, while she searches for him, a speck on the screen of her tablet.

At a singles event, Gloria meets Arnold (John Turturro), a divorced man who falls instantly in love with Gloria. Arnold assures Gloria that she is all he thinks about, and he means it, but he never turns his phone off. When the phone rings in the middle of the meal, or the poem, or the sex, he disappears back into his family crisis without so much as saying good-bye to Gloria.

This is depressing, bleak stuff, and it makes a wonderful counterpoint to Gloria’s character, who with only a brave smile and a positive attitude to face the emptiness of her coming old age, will make the best of not much and never blame anybody but herself.

At a birthday party for Gloria, which happens in the home of her son, the new father, his baby seems to not be there. Where is the baby? We are hard-wired to wonder where the baby is. And I think the director knows this. If people that we know have a baby are without their baby, we wonder where the baby is, and who is taking care of the baby, and if the baby is okay. When asked where his wife is, Gloria’s son says, ‘I have no idea.’ Does that mean the baby is with the missing wife? If so, nobody mentions the baby. The party goes by, with its emotional peaks and valleys. Finally, as everyone is leaving, we hear from the baby, who has been there the whole time, in a back room. This is one of these un-stories that deliver the message of the movie.

In an act of solidarity, Gloria walks a fired co-worker (middle-aged, carrying a potted plant out of the office in a cardboard box while nobody notices) to the elevator. As the elevator door closes, she says to Gloria, ‘Thanks for everything.’

This is the middle-class to capitalism, as the door closes and we are on our way down and out: “Thanks for everything.”

Stacia Tolman is a former English teacher whose first novel The Spaces Between Us is coming out in July, 2019, by Henry Holt.