Sebastián Lelio’s “Gloria Bell” is the second film this year to end with the Laura Branigan song “Gloria” — the kind of high-energy empowerment anthem that recasts its leading lady in a different light — the other being Netflix’s recent Gloria Allred docu “Seeing Allred.” Speaking of recasting leading ladies, it also happens to be the second of Lelio’s films to close with that song, although there’s a perfectly good explanation for that: “Gloria Bell” is a nearly scene-for-scene remake of the “A Fantastic Woman” director’s 2013 single-woman drama, this time in English and featuring Julianne Moore in the role that earned Paulina García the Berlin Film Festival’s best actress prize.
Many were skeptical when the project was announced, much as they were to the news that Jack Nicholson might star in an American version of “Toni Erdmann,” and yet Moore insisted in this case that if she were to play the role, Lelio must agree to direct. And so we get a film that shares the original’s generous view of the title character — of all its characters, really — along with a great many of its creative choices. But even with the same director and nearly the same script, “Gloria” and “Gloria Bell” are hardly the same movie, in the way that no two stagings of “Hamlet” can be the same when cast with different leading men. And it’s easy to imagine audiences who showed no interest in a Spanish-language version of this story responding to what Moore does with the role when A24 releases it next spring.
No one ever asks Gloria Bell her age (rather, they pose that more complimentary of L.A. questions, “Have you had work done?”), though the still-gorgeous fiftysomething has perhaps a decade left till retirement, and has been divorced for roughly a decade from husband Dustin (Brad Garrett), now remarried (to Jeanne Tripplehorn), with two grown kids (Michael Cera and Alanna Ubach) whose slightly expanded roles are one of the film’s improvements.
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As before, “Gloria Bell” opens in a singles bar — the kind that caters to those who no longer get carded — where Gloria, who loves to dance, sits alone at the bar with her back to the audience. She’s not exactly the type who stands out in a crowd, and yet the camera notices her — which is precisely the thing that sets Lelio’s sensibility apart from other filmmakers.
It’s a simple fact of modern society that in their 20s, people naturally tend to be egotists, perceiving themselves as the center of the universe, whereas Gloria has reached the point at which she doesn’t really see herself as the main character in her life anymore, instead defining herself in relation to others — as a parent, friend, or co-worker. Lelio corrects this, turning the attention back on this fantastic woman, in much the same way he recognized a Chilean trans character as the rightful protagonist of his Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman.”
There’s a risk that such sensitivity can come across as patronizing, which sort of happens in the 2013 film. One can almost feel a younger Lelio asking the audience to acknowledge the sheer humanism displayed in making a movie about a sad, single-again mid-life woman. Maybe that’s reading too much into the original “Gloria,” although the tone is softer here, more relatable — which, of course, is the point: not panhandling for pity but inviting identification with three-dimensional characters who’ve started to question whether they’re still entitled to the kind of hopes and dreams younger people take for granted.
That’s true of not just Gloria but also fellow divorcé Arnold (John Turturro), a paintball enthusiast who picks her up at the club one night, enjoys a tender connection back at her place (there is sex, though Lelio recognizes that the afterglow is more meaningful for both of them), and shyly calls her up a few days later, after wrestling with the question of whether he deserves to feel the emotions she awakens in him. Moore is great in the movie, uncovering — and sharing — all sorts of new facets to Gloria’s character, but Turturro is a revelation, taking what was always a frustrating role (Arnold’s still too attached to his needy ex-wife and daughters, who are constantly calling him, and it’s a drag to watch Gloria competing for his attention) and recognizing what that character is feeling as well.
But even if Turturro finds soul in the male part, “Gloria Bell” remains one of the great female-led films of the 21st century, passing the Bechdel test with flying colors — which explains why Moore would be so keen to remake it. The actress’s fan base loves when she goes slightly over the top, gnashing her teeth at the pharmacy counter in “Magnolia” or bowling in a Valkyrie costume in “The Big Lebowski,” but she’s a master of subtlety as well, and here, the challenge is to see ourselves in a character who prefers to blend in. Even at the club, she’s a bit of a wallflower (though it’s interesting that Gloria is nearly always the one to initiate contact with others), though Lelio adds a few nice scenes at work and home (where a neighbor’s hairless cat keeps showing up uninvited) while still managing to deliver a film that’s eight minutes shorter overall.
Although García and Moore were born in the same year (under the same sign!), Lelio is more mature now than he was when he made the original film, and he brings that experience to the project in small but crucial ways, namely by shifting ever so slightly the points when audiences are invited to laugh, more often directed at other characters than at Gloria herself. Meanwhile, he treats quiet, private glimpses into her life — singing to outdated pop songs in the car, hand-washing her undergarments in the sink — with what’s best described as dignity.
The same goes for the nude scenes, which hardly feel as revealing as the places Moore goes to explore Gloria’s insecurities and later, the strength she finds to be independent. The character’s look (she wears two pairs of oversize spectacles, one red, the other blue) has been toned down somewhat, as has the film’s overall style — still elegant yet not nearly so surface-oriented, replacing the nightclub gloss of the original with a warmer pastel glow from “The Neon Demon” DP Natasha Braier (who could certainly have outdone the original in the other direction, if Lelio had wanted it). A remake like this is something of an anomaly, but it would be fascinating to explore the character with other actresses in additional countries — say, Cate Blanchett in “Gloria Down Under” or Isabelle Huppert in “Gloria de France” — with each new “cover” undoubtedly finding fresh notes.