Running After Somebody
By Adam Nayman
Dir. Sebasti√°n Lelio, Chile, Roadside Attractions
Turin-born formaggio merchant Umberto Tozzi‚Äôs 1979 single ‚ÄúGloria‚ÄĚ (famously covered in 1982 by American disco queen Laura Brannigan) is a song about a girl on the verge, either of a breakthrough, a breakdown, or some hot-messy combination thereof. As such, the track makes for an apt theme song and namesake for Sebastian Lelio‚Äôs new drama, which focuses on a middle-aged woman trying to hold it together. Introduced dressed up and on the prowl at a seniors night at a Santiago discotheque, Gloria (Paulina Garc√≠a) is a character consumed by desire. The problem is that she doesn‚Äôt really know what she wants. Fifty-eight years old and a decade removed from a marriage that yielded two beloved (and now grown-up) children, and not much else, she‚Äôs looking for a change of pace. Hence the searching, alert quality she projects during what is supposed to be a relaxing evening on the town. Where the other revelers around her look like they‚Äôre just trying to have a good time, our heroine is playing to win.
The same goes for the actress inhabiting her. Garc√≠a took home the prize for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival, and while there‚Äôs nothing overtly cynical or calculated about her performance, there‚Äôs something about both the role and the acting that screams ‚Äútour de force!‚ÄĚ That they do so in a kind of harmony is testament to the cleverness of the film‚Äôs writer-director. Lelio, a young veteran who has been making short films and features in Chile since 1995, has custom-tooled Gloria as a vehicle for a star with some miles on her. Showing more self-effacement than his countryman (and producer) Pablo Larra√≠n‚ÄĒwho managed to overshadow even Gael Garcia Bern√°l with his videographic hijinks in No‚ÄĒLelio just hands Garc√≠a the wheel and lets her put the pedal to the metal.
It‚Äôs not quite right to call Gloria a fast-moving film, but the short strokes of Lelio‚Äôs storytelling give an impression of velocity. Exposition is parceled out on the fly; for instance, we don‚Äôt really understand Gloria‚Äôs fractured family situation until she attends a supremely uneasy reunion dinner with her ex-husband (and his new wife), and even then tracing the vertices of the characters‚Äô relationships is complicated by the fact that they‚Äôre blotto. If there‚Äôs a person onscreen we identify with in this sequence it‚Äôs not Gloria, who lets the booze do the talking for her, but her new boyfriend, Rodolfo (Sergio Hern√°ndez), a rumpled ex-Naval officer whose respectfully restrained vibe seems appropriate for a delicate situation‚ÄĒuntil his self-effacement turns into a literal disappearing act.
This is one of the best-directed sequences in the movie: after Rodolfo excuses himself to use the bathroom, he‚Äôs just gone, and the editing is clever and deceptive enough that it takes the audience at least as long to notice as the other characters. If Garc√≠a is Gloria‚Äôs constant focal point‚ÄĒit‚Äôs hard to think of a passage where she isn‚Äôt front and center‚ÄĒHernandez‚Äôs Rodolfo is the film‚Äôs structuring absence: a meek phantom who drifts on and off-screen at irregular intervals. Rodolfo‚Äôs hide-and-seek shtick derives from the fact that, like Gloria, he has a set of intimate, pre-existing relationships to attend to: a troubled ex-wife and daughters who require his care and support in spite of their estrangement. But Lelio also uses the character‚Äôs elusiveness metaphorically. Even as he seems to be the man of Gloria‚Äôs (now modestly downscaled) dreams‚ÄĒkind, thoughtful, and clearly head over heels for her‚ÄĒhe‚Äôs also the embodiment of all her anxieties about abandonment. The first time he leaves her, at the dinner party, her reaction is that of a spurned lover: she doesn‚Äôt chase him, and almost loses him in the process. The second time, in a marvelously sustained and escalatingly strange vacation at a beachfront hotel, his disappearance sends her over the edge, and the movie goes with her‚ÄĒLelio sends Gloria on a voyage of gentle self-abasement that plays out with the choppy, disorienting quality of an all-night bender.
It‚Äôs possible to detect more than a few hints of detachment or even derision in the way that Gloria treats its protagonist, but Garcia‚Äôs performance stands up against these moments in the screenplay in a way that creates genuine friction‚ÄĒthe fraught quality that generally makes for worthwhile filmmaking. Her hotel room seduction of Rodolfo is a case in point. Even if Gloria‚Äôs deliberate full-frontal display, dramatically doffing a raincoat and then pouncing on her prey in short order, can be understood as Lelio dropping a gauntlet at his audience‚Äôs feet‚ÄĒhere is an older woman, in the throes of sexual desire‚ÄĒit‚Äôs also the character‚Äôs only recourse to keeping her habitually distracted lover securely in thrall. Every time Lelio seems to be showing off, it‚Äôs tied to the character‚Äôs desperation. A late shot of Gloria unexpectedly staring down a peacock outside a party she‚Äôs attending alone isn‚Äôt exactly subtle, but it does the trick of clarifying the character‚Äôs contradictions, the possibly toxic cocktail of vanity and insecurity coursing through her veins.
Gloria‚Äôs festival circuit-success will inevitably lead to its being seen as a standard-bearer for the ‚ÄúNew Chilean Cinema,‚ÄĚ which currently counts Pablo Larra√≠n as its paterfamilias and Sebastian Silva‚ÄĒhe of the recent double-barreled collaboration with Michael Cera in Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic‚ÄĒas its crossover figure. The film‚Äôs appeal to an international mainstream audience lies in the way it skillfully doles out the requisite ‚Äúlocal color‚ÄĚ without following Larra√≠n‚Äôs lead of highly politicized storytelling: aside from a briefly glimpsed campus protest, Gloria‚Äôs Chile appears to be relatively prosperous and untroubled. And while there‚Äôs surely an element of national specificity to the story‚Äôs portrait of a woman whose solitude places her on the margins in both her personal and professional lives, this is also a universal theme‚ÄĒone that should hit home with the soft-art-house demographic to which Lelio‚Äôs film will undoubtedly be marketed.
Gloria ends where it began, out on the dance floor, where Garcia Tozzi‚Äôs title track gets the full-bodied workout its beat demands. It‚Äôs precisely the sort of vivid yet purposefully ambiguous ending that you‚Äôd expect from such a well-made film (it strongly echoes the coda of Bong Joon-ho‚Äôs Mother, albeit in a far less sinister context) and as such, it‚Äôs satisfying‚ÄĒmaybe a little too much so. It‚Äôs as if Lelio, having put Gloria through the wringer, feels like he owes her a victory lap, and it recasts everything that‚Äôs come before in a triumphal light (as does a bit of business involving a paintball gun). The heroine of Tozzi‚Äôs ‚ÄúGloria‚ÄĚ is advised by the song‚Äôs narrator to ‚Äúleave ‚Äėem hanging on the line,‚ÄĚ even though it‚Äôs clear that it‚Äôs she herself who‚Äôs in no-man‚Äôs land. Lelio‚Äôs ending superficially evokes this same stranded quality, but besides being a contemporary serious-movie clich√© (cf everything from Michael Clayton to Free Zone), this conspicuously drawn-out final shot actually serves to tie up all of this carefully controlled movie‚Äôs loose ends in a nice, shiny bow.