She’s divorced, in her 50s, works a nondescript office job and likes belting out power ballads while stuck in L.A. traffic. She could be your mom, your sister or the lady behind you at the grocery store.
Except she’s not, because she’s played by Julianne Moore.
In “Gloria Bell,” the Oscar-winning actress and writer-director Sebastián Lelio elevate the story of an ordinary woman dealing with the challenges of middle age through the power of close observation. Not only is Moore in every scene but she is also in every frame of the film, which follows Gloria, a single but largely content mother of two grown children whose buttoned-up exterior — she wears oversize librarian glasses — belies a joyful spirit. Her motto: “When the world blows up, I hope I go down dancing.”
Like other women Moore has portrayed, Gloria is not particularly remarkable.
“I'm more compelled by stories of ordinary people than I am by the story of the person who, I don't know, discovered plutonium or something. Not that science isn't interesting, but sometimes these great big stories have more in common with fantasy than they do real life, and I like real life,” says the actress, in a joint interview with Lelio in Manhattan.
There’s a temptation to describe Gloria as a woman on a quest for fulfillment — she takes a laughter therapy class — but Moore doesn’t quite see her character that way. “I don't think she's searching. I think she's living.”
One night at a single’s club, she meets Alfred (John Turturro), whose life is in a more obvious state of transition: He’s recently divorced and has shed a great deal of weight thanks to gastric bypass surgery. Though he aggressively pursues Gloria, Alfred is burdened by a needy ex-wife and a pair of feckless adult daughters and feels threatened by her comparatively healthy relationships with her ex-husband (Brad Garrett) and children (Michael Cera and Caren Pistorius).
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because “Gloria Bell” is a faithful remake of Lelio’s 2013 Spanish-language movie “Gloria,” which was set in Santiago, Chile, and starred Paulina García in the title role — a warm, funny performance that earned her the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival.
Although not quite a shot-for-shot remake, “Gloria Bell” hews closely to the original but makes subtle changes to account for differences in culture. Both Glorias are taunted by a sneaky hairless cat, for instance, but only the Chilean Gloria has a maid. And even though Hollywood has a long, uneven track record of remaking foreign-language films, it’s rare for the same director to tackle both the original and its English-language adaptation. (The most notable exception might be Michael Haneke’s two versions of “Funny Games.”)
The biggest change is the setting. It was Moore’s idea to relocate the action to Los Angeles, a place where “you can be so isolated but so close to a lot of chaos,” she says.
Lelio likens “Gloria Bell” to a cover version of a familiar song. “There is a pre-existing melody, and then we play it again with a new rock band, and that implies a new vibe and a new moment in our lives and a new energy, and that's what's different.”
Moore recalls how she fell in love with the directorial gaze of the original “Gloria” and requested a meeting with the filmmaker, which eventually led to a fortuitous sit-down in Paris in 2015.
“There was this sort of misunderstanding where he thought I wanted to meet him but I didn't have any interest in doing a remake of the film. We talked about the movie and his work, and at the very end of the meeting, he said, ‘Well, thank you very much, but I know you're not interested in remaking this film.’ And I said, ‘Well, I would do it, but only if you directed it.’ And then he said, ‘I would do it if you were in it.’”
After clearing up the confusion, they began to discuss the particulars of an American remake. At the time, Lelio’s profile as a filmmaker surged thanks to “A Fantastic Woman,” a deeply sympathetic and timely story of a transgender Chilean woman that won the Academy Award for foreign language film last year, and “Disobedience,” his first English-language movie, which depicted a forbidden affair between two women (Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz) in a London Orthodox Jewish community.
Meanwhile, “The world also changed,” Lelio observes. “When Trump got elected, I thought, ‘Now is the time to do this.’ Suddenly, the story of a woman who claims a right to be seen and heard becomes more urgent."
While there are moments of catharsis, raucous humor and peril in “Gloria Bell,” including a crowd-pleasing scene involving a paintball gun, much of its running time is devoted to simply observing Gloria as she goes about her unremarkable daily routine — plucking stray hairs from her chin, going to her daughter’s yoga class or trying to zip up a dress on her own. The movie, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and is being released by A24, marks a collaboration between an actor and a director with a shared affinity for stories about women who are often overlooked.
“It's not like I’m following an agenda, but there is something exciting about taking someone who is on the fringes of mainstream narratives,” Lelio says. “For me, the game of the film is to take a character that in a standard film should be a secondary character — the mother of the protagonist, the wife of the protagonist — and the camera would go with the man. But here, the camera stays with her — and stays and stays and forces you to understand that she is the absolute protagonist of her life.”
“The audience experiences Gloria the same way Gloria sees herself, so it forces an identification that's really complete — you begin to feel that you’re watching yourself,” Moore adds. “His gaze is always telling you this woman’s story and creating this intense identification for the audience the entire time, and I love that. It's really apparent, when you look at all of his films, he’s a tremendous humanist.”
This identification is enhanced by a soundtrack of infectious pop anthems by Air Supply, Bonnie Tyler, Olivia Newton-John and Laura Branigan, songs that reflect Gloria’s circumstances and make the film kind of “a hidden musical,” Lelio says.
“Gloria has a disco ball inside her heart,” Lelio adds, paraphrasing composer Matthew Herbert.
Gloria’s uninhibited singalong sessions in the car provide an amusing motif throughout the film, but for Moore, they were somewhat less joyful to shoot, listening to the same songs on repeat. “As an actor, you’re struggling for that lack of self consciousness that you have when you’re alone, but you’re not alone.”
Ultimately, the appeal of “Gloria Bell” lies in what Moore describes as the “epic component” of ordinary existence: “Most of your life is comprised of emptying the dishwasher and then feeding the cat.”