The Glories of Gloria

We've entered an age in which people have no idea how old they are. Fifty-year-olds lament, "I still feel 30 in my mind," and sometimes dress like it. Some 30-year-olds may cling to the destructive habits of their 20s, but plenty more march dutifully into full-on family-and-career–building mode, perhaps acting older than they need to. Now that people are living and staying healthier so much longer, our self-invention can go on seemingly forever. The bad news is that we're perpetually in between, and sometimes it's hard to know how to be.

The heroine of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio's exuberant semi-comedy Gloria is right in the middle of the 50-something version of that in-between. We join her story already in progress but get the idea pretty quickly: Gloria (Paulina García) has been divorced for 13 years and would, quite simply, like to meet a guy. The movie opens at a dance club filled with people around her age. The women are decked out in spindly high heels and vaguely sparkly dresses that stop just short of trying too hard. The men are neatly dressed in jackets, though somehow they all look a little more shopworn, maybe a little less moisturized, than the women do. And still, the women want them. The music floating through the ersatz disco night is a mating call from ancient times, Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." A polite-looking guy strikes up a conversation with Gloria: "Are you always this happy?" It's a wonderful question and a hard one, and it makes Gloria laugh, which is an answer in itself.

By day, Gloria works at some unidentified but stable and well-paying office job in Santiago. She's close to her children, but they don't have as much time for her as she'd like. She has plenty of friends, smart, engaged adults who kick into spirited political discussions at dinner. She lives in a nicely furnished apartment where a neighbor's scrawny, hairless cat keeps sneaking in to visit her — she complains to her housekeeper (Luz Jiménez) that its denuded tail is "like a mouse's," and she's right, though the housekeeper responds with a plea for feline tolerance in the form of a fantastical story about the origins of the common house cat. (Apparently, the lion on Noah's ark sneezed one out of each nostril.)

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A scene from Gloria
A scene from Gloria

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Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Written by Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza. Starring Paulina García, Sergio Hernández, Marcial Tagle, Diego Fontecilla, and Fabiola Zamora. Rated R.

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Gloria does meet a guy, the more-or-less dashing Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), who seems enchanted by her. He looks fit, thanks to the gastric-bypass surgery he readily confesses to. And he too is divorced, though more recently than Gloria. He's a former naval officer who runs an amusement park where paintball figures prominently — that ought to be a deal-breaker right there, but Gloria coasts with it. The suggestion is that a woman Gloria's age can't be that picky — and maybe it really is Rodolfo's only flaw.

Guess again. While much of Gloria tracks the ups and downs of the Rodolfo affair, it's really all an excuse for us to get to know her. Lelio — whose best-known movie, in the States at least, is probably 2005's The Sacred Family — seems to know what he's got in his star. García's Gloria is radiant, in an averagely pretty way. Even her adamantly retro oversized 1980s glasses can't diminish the delicate vibrancy of her features. Gloria looks her age, whatever that means for a woman in her late 50s in this age of non-ages. But the point, as García implicitly makes clear, is that no matter how young you may feel, the whispering reality is that time is running out. When Gloria's eye doctor diagnoses her with glaucoma and tells her she must use eye drops "every day for the rest of her life," the flash of disbelief on her face says everything. That's such a very long time — or maybe not such a long time at all.

García won the Silver Bear for best actress at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, and it's a bummer that more U.S. critics' groups didn't pick up on this astute, alert performance. (Gloria was the official Chilean entry for this year's Academy Awards, though it didn't earn a nomination.) When I saw the movie last year, I overheard someone call it a "midlife crisis drama." The comment was clueless for lots of reasons, most notably because there's no crisis in Gloria at all, which is what makes it so marvelous. It features several sex scenes in which middle-age bodies — really post-middle-age, when you think about it — are fully revealed, yet not gaudily or cruelly displayed. These sequences work as a counterpart to the hungrier, more romantically libidinous ones in Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color — they simmer rather than cook, but they're no less moving.

Gloria doesn't need a guy; she just wants one. This is what desire looks like when it's freed from desperation. A friend in his late 60s once asked me, with genuine, yearning curiosity, "When do you stop wanting it?" There's no universal answer, but it's hardly a new question. Gloria offers an answer for the age of the ageless.

 
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