My guess is that some people will see Gloria for its numerous sex scenes. And, actually, I think that’s a valid reason for seeing the film by Chilean director Sebastian Lelio. But my hope is that you’ll stay for more—to appreciate a truly subtle and elegantly aimless film.
The film centers on Gloria (Paulina Garcia) and her life in modern-day Santiago, a soft if boring middle-class existence in the shadow of post-dictatorial Chile. Gloria, 58, has been divorced for a decade and has two adult children who don’t answer her phone calls as often as she’d like them to. In the daytime, she chases her neighbor’s hairless cat out of her apartment and toils in the fluorescence of a nameless office. But at night we’re introduced to our heroine as a potential suitor would see her; the camera spots her from across the room at a dance hall full of older singles. She’s alone and, at first, lonesome-looking—but there’s a wry self-possession just beneath her oversized glasses. At night, she wears bright lipstick that matches her figure-skimming outfits.
Garcia plays Gloria with huge intelligence. Sometimes she drinks too much and steps sideways on a heel. Sometimes she dances politely with a man she’s not wild about—that changes the day Rodolpho, an ex-naval-officer-turned-amusement-park-owner, steals her attentions at the dance hall.
It’s rare to see a film where older women are allowed to be sexy without snark and Gloria’s sex scenes linger in a way that suggests no directorial accommodations were made for the age of the bodies being filmed. The camera is close and sensual. The sexual positions wander outside of missionary. There is no quick cut-to or fade-away. Gloria’s nudity is presented with the non-fanfare of everyday life, like the simplicity of being nude in one’s apartment alone. If you’re honest with yourself, it will shock you in the best possible way.
The film reveals early on that Rodolpho has recently had a gastric bypass—we get a quick glimpse of his girdle—but the older couple’s energy is electric and sexual from the start. Quickly, though, their relationship starts meandering toward a familiar, late-in-life love story with Rodolpho playing the part of a polite and decent man. As you’d expect in a typical narrative, Gloria then begins to see his red flags: A very fresh divorce, near-constant phone calls from his adult daughters, and sudden unexplained absences followed by pleading apologies.
But in this refreshing film, the relationship course isn’t quite as central to the plot as I initially assumed it would be. The romance takes a back seat to brilliant vignettes that pepper the plot, ranging from light comedy (a creative retelling of Noah’s Ark explains the origin of cats) to absolute, pitch-black humor. In one beautifully on-the-nose scene, Gloria happens upon a skeleton marionette that’s being made to dance wildly to pop songs. Bending down, she looks it straight in its cavernous, painted eyes before depositing a tip in the street performer’s hat. Here, you’re either in on the joke, or you’re too young.
As the plot winds from one piece of the tale to the next, audiences may drift into a mental haze. Events are difficult to catalog within this universe, mainly because the film chronicles simply existing beside Gloria—aided wholly by intimate direction and cinematography. The audience is in the passenger seat while she belts out pop songs in her car, lingers close to her face as she awakes hungover on a beach, and looms just over her shoulder, close enough to smell perfume, in the dance hall. Toward the end of the film, a new acquaintance pushes a (very) drunken Gloria on a playground carousel and with the camera nested close to her face, Paulina Garcia glides across every emotion in the human catalog. Is what you’re seeing ecstasy or nausea? As her arms fling up over her head, is she expressing freedom or a booze-dampened resignation? The talent of Garcia’s acting is that it’s all of the above, quickly mutating from one expression to the next before it becomes a definable moment. And really, that’s the whole complicated march of this film.
At times, Gloria is magnetic and radiant—but always just before the quick left turn into the seedy overhead lighting of a bar. The film is a fleshed-out game of “Chutes and Ladders” that will resonate with viewers of any age. I left the theater feeling a little sad that a female lead like Garcia and a film like Gloria are both so rare.
Gloria is now in wide release in the United States. Watch the trailer below.
Jenny Catchings is a marketing-type and writer who recently moved to Brooklyn, NY. If you like pictures of crocheting and public transit, you can follow her on Instagram.