Running After Somebody
By Adam Nayman

Dir. Sebastián Lelio, Chile, Roadside Attractions

Turin-born formaggio merchant Umberto Tozzi’s 1979 single “Gloria” (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’s 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 García) is a character consumed by desire. The problem is that she doesn’t 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’s 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’re just trying to have a good time, our heroine is playing to win.

The same goes for the actress inhabiting her. García took home the prize for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival, and while there’s nothing overtly cynical or calculated about her performance, there’s something about both the role and the acting that screams “tour de force!” That they do so in a kind of harmony is testament to the cleverness of the film’s 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 Larraín—who managed to overshadow even Gael Garcia Bernál with his videographic hijinks in No—Lelio just hands García the wheel and lets her put the pedal to the metal.

It’s not quite right to call Gloria a fast-moving film, but the short strokes of Lelio’s storytelling give an impression of velocity. Exposition is parceled out on the fly; for instance, we don’t really understand Gloria’s 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’ relationships is complicated by the fact that they’re blotto. If there’s a person onscreen we identify with in this sequence it’s not Gloria, who lets the booze do the talking for her, but her new boyfriend, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a rumpled ex-Naval officer whose respectfully restrained vibe seems appropriate for a delicate situation—until 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’s 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 García is Gloria’s constant focal point—it’s hard to think of a passage where she isn’t front and center—Hernandez’s Rodolfo is the film’s structuring absence: a meek phantom who drifts on and off-screen at irregular intervals. Rodolfo’s 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’s elusiveness metaphorically. Even as he seems to be the man of Gloria’s (now modestly downscaled) dreams—kind, thoughtful, and clearly head over heels for her—he’s 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’t 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—Lelio sends Gloria on a voyage of gentle self-abasement that plays out with the choppy, disorienting quality of an all-night bender.

It’s possible to detect more than a few hints of detachment or even derision in the way that Gloria treats its protagonist, but Garcia’s performance stands up against these moments in the screenplay in a way that creates genuine friction—the fraught quality that generally makes for worthwhile filmmaking. Her hotel room seduction of Rodolfo is a case in point. Even if Gloria’s 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’s feet—here is an older woman, in the throes of sexual desire—it’s also the character’s only recourse to keeping her habitually distracted lover securely in thrall. Every time Lelio seems to be showing off, it’s tied to the character’s desperation. A late shot of Gloria unexpectedly staring down a peacock outside a party she’s attending alone isn’t exactly subtle, but it does the trick of clarifying the character’s contradictions, the possibly toxic cocktail of vanity and insecurity coursing through her veins.

Gloria’s festival circuit-success will inevitably lead to its being seen as a standard-bearer for the “New Chilean Cinema,” which currently counts Pablo Larraín as its paterfamilias and Sebastian Silva—he of the recent double-barreled collaboration with Michael Cera in Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic—as its crossover figure. The film’s appeal to an international mainstream audience lies in the way it skillfully doles out the requisite “local color” without following Larraín’s lead of highly politicized storytelling: aside from a briefly glimpsed campus protest, Gloria’s Chile appears to be relatively prosperous and untroubled. And while there’s surely an element of national specificity to the story’s portrait of a woman whose solitude places her on the margins in both her personal and professional lives, this is also a universal theme—one that should hit home with the soft-art-house demographic to which Lelio’s film will undoubtedly be marketed.

Gloria ends where it began, out on the dance floor, where Garcia Tozzi’s title track gets the full-bodied workout its beat demands. It’s precisely the sort of vivid yet purposefully ambiguous ending that you’d expect from such a well-made film (it strongly echoes the coda of Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, albeit in a far less sinister context) and as such, it’s satisfying—maybe a little too much so. It’s as if Lelio, having put Gloria through the wringer, feels like he owes her a victory lap, and it recasts everything that’s come before in a triumphal light (as does a bit of business involving a paintball gun). The heroine of Tozzi’s “Gloria” is advised by the song’s narrator to “leave ‘em hanging on the line,” even though it’s clear that it’s she herself who’s in no-man’s land. Lelio’s ending superficially evokes this same stranded quality, but besides being a contemporary serious-movie cliché (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’s loose ends in a nice, shiny bow.