Director Sebastian Lello’s Gloria is receiving well-deserved applause for being a tender, courageous look at the much maligned sexuality of aging women, but commentary is still missing the mark of this lovely film as far as I’m concerned. It may take a therapist to fill in the gaps.
Pauline Garcia plays a fifty something woman a few pounds above her best, but still possessing an abundance of charm, not to mention a quietly seductive streak. As the film opens, she appears alone at a bar of the kind of disco that doesn’t seem to exist in the youth-centered world in which I live. Meaning, she’s not exactly out of her element, as nearly everyone seems over fifty, soft around the middle and looking for love. Her character, Gloria, is not really a cougar, as some critics have suggested. There’s no evidence in the film that she is drawn to younger men, as that term implies. She lives alone, works in a sterile office in Santiago, Chile, and leads a lonely and, most importantly, a somewhat unrealized life. Among other things, she drinks too much, smokes marijuana, and seems to lack insight. She meets Rodolfo, a seemingly warm, gentlemanly fellow who diffidently courts Gloria on the dance floor. She gives him winsome looks that tread a line between demur and eager posturing, but in the bedroom, the truth of her hungry desire is unleashed amid carelessly dropped clothes; hers and Rodolfo’s fleshy groping.
All is good for a spell, though it isn’t long before Rodolfo’s feckless nature creates problems. Evasive about an ex-wife, a pair of dependent-adult daugthers, he unnerves Gloria with his reluctance to unveil her to his family. She appears to press the issue by instead introducing him to her family, so within a gathering that dovetails a birthday celebration with a family reunion, subtle points are made about her character. Firstly, the party also introduces Rodolfo to her daughter, who we learn is pregnant, and Gloria’s ex-husband, who was hitherto unaware of his daughter’s condition. The daughter’s truculence towards her father, as depicted in these scenes, is compelling, as it suggest two things: that the daughter, not Gloria, carries the ongoing protest against the once neglectful father, and by extension, absent men in general; secondly, given what we’re soon to learn about Rodolfo, it seems that Gloria is pathologically drawn to unavailable partners, and it is telling that no one appears to notice this. A moment of drama occurs as Rodolfo inexplicably abandons the party, which humiliates Gloria in front of her kids and the ex-husband. Rodolfo appears days later, complaining that he felt mistreated at the party, ignored by Gloria when feeling unwell, and more generally by the intoxicated, family-centered event. His account is thinly credible, but just about good enough for Gloria, who grants him a second chance.
The affair continues towards disaster with grim inevitability. In the theater, I could hear the murmuring “uh-ohs” of fellow audience members, especially women, who saw where this was going. The pair visit Rodolfo’s place of business, a theme park centered around paintball which he either owns or manages. Among other things, the scene of Gloria playing with a paintball gun foreshadows the end of hers and Rodolfo’s affair, and the style of revenge she will likely seek. Meanwhile, a comic subplot about a stray, hairless cat that keeps infiltrating Gloria’s apartment takes shape for anyone looking for underlying themes. The cat belongs to an upstairs neighbor, a disturbed man who keeps Gloria awake at night with unexplained screaming fits. The cat escapes abuse and seeks bonding with Gloria, but at first she is uninterested, which is significant. She’s too attached to abuse to notice the clues that surround her.
Of course, Rodolfo abandons Gloria a second time. It happens during a romantic getaway to a stylish hotel resort. During dinner, after Gloria has playfully dropped his phone into a plate of soup, which prevents him from taking calls from his clinging daughters, he rises from his seat, kisses Gloria in a manner that seems eerily violent, and walks away, declaring he will be back soon. The audience knows better. He has disappeared, and soon we watch as Gloria pulls an all-nighter: she gambles in a casino, picks up a few friends, an oversexed date who leaves her blacked out on a beach (maybe she’s been assaulted–it’s not clear). Eventually, she wanders back to her hotel, where she learns that Rodolfo has stuck her with the bill. She is humiliated again, defeated.
Redemption occurs (partly) in the aforementioned revenge with paintball guns that Rodolfo has previously (and unwisely) gifted her. Otherwise, she later rejects his predictable appeal for a third chance, but concurrently accepts the cat’s presence, at least until her upstairs neighbor drops by to claim it. Finally, Gloria attends yet another social event, becomes as drunk if not drunker than she had ever been before, and once again makes her way onto a dance floor, which recalls the film’s opening. The difference is that she’s not looking for a partner this time. Dancing to the eighties party favorite, “Gloria”, a seemingly vapid tune whose lyrics are actually something of a cautionary tale, she dances with herself.
It will be tempting for some theater-goers to see the film as an anti-male statement, but I don’t think it is. Such interpretations are for those who tend to externalize problems; who think Gloria is simply a victim of bad men. It’ll take something else for audiences to learn something real from this work of art. It requires a mature sense to experience Gloria as a marvelous film about conflict avoidance, and the need to learn about oneself before committing to others.