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As a general rule, I hate wishy-washy reviews, but this might be one of them. Bear with me though. It is possible that ambivalence may be the point.
It started off promisingly enough. Palace Cinema was offering tickets to advanced screenings of Gloria Bell, a film written and directed by Sebastian Lelio, starring Julianne Moore as a fifty-something divorcee looking for love on the dance floors of Los Angeles. One night she bumps into Arnold (John Turturro) and things move very quickly. The main aspect of the plot- if there is one- is Arnold’s character: a poetry-reading ex-marine who claims to be divorced but constantly fields calls from his irate (ex?) wife and daughters and disappears suddenly for long stretches.
Most of the scenes, including the ones of Gloria and Arnold on dates, are of a mundane nature. They feature Gloria attending dinners with her children, doing her laundry, repeatedly shooing an errant cat out of her house, putting up with the yelling of the suicidal maniac in the flat above her, and generally being nice to everybody, including her clients. (She works for an insurance company and deals with car crashes all day… clearly a metaphor for what her life is about to become).
All around Gloria people are dying. Figuratively, not literally. Over lunch, her ageing mother foreshadows that she may not leave behind much of an inheritance, while reminding her that life goes like that (cue finger snap). A colleague has a meltdown over her meagre lack of retirement savings (“I’m going to have to work until I’m eighty”) and is subsequently retrenched. Her daughter, showing a video of her new Swedish dreamboat boyfriend surfing ridiculously huge waves, reminds Gloria that we could all die at any moment. Not long after they meet, Gloria and Arnold are sitting in bed talking, and Gloria mentions an article in the newspaper about cell rejuvenation, which claimed that the skin cells covering their arms and legs might only be ten years old.
Nevertheless Gloria is not immune. Visiting the optometrist, she is told she has to take eye drops from now on to prevent blindness. Drop by drop, the rest of her days are measured out for her. The film wants you to know that the clock is ticking, and as it meanders along you are definitely conscious of time. But when I started to feel the drag, I paid more attention. I could feel the repetitiveness and emptinesss of Gloria’s days, and wondered whether the reaction in my own body was a stirring of empathy; a recognition of the empty spaces within my own life. As Gloria’s life unspools and the passage of time becomes disorientating in its repetitiveness, the sameness resembled the time warp that happens when you are grief-stricken. Grief features in the form of her adult children, neither of whom “need” her. Her son has a small child and her daughter leaves California to join her boyfriend in Sweden where they await the birth of their hastily conceived baby. You start to wonder where the meaning -of both Gloria’s life and the film- is located.
But the banality ticks by and Gloria keeps being nice to everybody: her clients, her ex-husband and his new wife, her children, her colleagues. And Arnold. After disappearing without explanation, he reappears equally without one, and takes Gloria on an impromptu mini-break to Caesar’s Palace. Gloria professes to find the complex- essentially a theme park for adults- beautiful, and spends a lot of time looking around in wonderment. The night almost descends into a maelstrom that is almost hyperreal, with Gloria’s drunkenness backlit by neon lights. Arnold is nowhere to be seen.
Caesar’s Palace is the clue to the meaning of the film. It is the apotheosis of the American dream; everything is bright and sparkly and over-the-top, but empty at heart. Mirage-like, it reflects the lack of substance embodied by Arnold (close by, there is actually a resort named The Mirage), which is in turn encapsulated by his profession: Arnold owns his own amusement park. Early in their courtship, he takes Gloria there to shoot paint balls at targets and gawp at grown men re-enacting military combat. This scene is disorientating in its invocation of simulacra, but at Caesar’s Palace the simulation is complete. The complex aims to give visitors a taste of the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire as imagined by Hollywood in the first half of the twentieth century. In other words, a simulacra of a simulacra. (But it gets even more meta: this film is a remake of Lelio’s 2013 Spanish language film of the same name. As an article in the new Yorker suggested, he could “sue himself for plagiarism”).
Caesar’s Palace also clinches the superficiality of other aspects of Gloria’s life. Gloria is overjoyed when another woman at her favourite nightclub asks her if she has had plastic surgery on her face (she hasn’t). She cuts a stylish figure and her body, which has borne two children, is remarkably toned. For someone who is an insurance clerk she rents a very nice- looking apartment, also tastefully decorated. Her car has leather seats. Everyone around her is white. But what kind of life is this, in an anonymous, car dependent concrete jungle where being mistaken for someone who has had plastic surgery is the climax of your existence? Unfortunately for Gloria, most of the time she doesn’t realise she is looking at mirages.
The cat- presumably a neighbour’s, is a kind of omen. Gloria herself remarks that it reminds her of the cats in Ancient Egypt that were said to accompany mummies into the afterlife. For a while it seems she may be crossing the Styx (ok, that’s Greek mythology but you get the point) when her mother bails her out of Caesar’s Palace after Arnold does another runner. She returns home partially shod, incapacitated to the point where her mother has to help her get dressed, and with what is presumably the hangover to end all hangovers. The cat awaits her, and she is later seen feeding it, resigning herself to the possibility that the animal presents what she cannot obtain from the people around her: a reliable relationship.
Until the junket to Caesar’s Palace, it was hard to tell whether the film was a self-indulgent ride through the emptiness of modern existence, or whether it was taking the mickey. Likely it is both. In true existential fashion, Gloria’s only option is to give in to the meaningless. One hopes she learns to recognise a mirage, but the conclusion is ambiguous. At the wedding of her close friend’s daughter, Gloria dances on her own to “Gloria” (If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?/ You don’t have to answer/ Leave them hangin’ on the line), her own tune, except that it’s not. Is she giving in to self-love, reinforcing the cult of individuality that underpins her empty society, or is she at peace with her fate?
Gloria Bell was often very awkward- so much so that at the end I felt apologetic for dragging my friend to it. However, we both came out feeling oddly hypnotised, and the following morning I woke up disorientated, still mesmerised by the bright lights of LA, and I felt a surge of gratitude for my extremely reliable partner. Clearly, the film did its job after all.