You don’t have to be middle-aged (although it helps) to recognize that love affairs get more interesting later in life — say, 58, the age of the woman at the center of the happy-horrible seesaw that is Gloria. I don’t mean interesting to viewers whose idea of romance is young people with beautiful bodies boning — it’s likely they’ll avert their eyes when, pre-coitus, an old man unhooks his girdle and his belly falls out. I mean interesting because there are so many more variables. Physical degeneration, obviously. But also children who are grown and whose absence leaves a void — or who refuse to leave the nest and are a different kind of pain. Or ex-spouses who might or might not have found mates and have fluctuating levels of resentment, which results in emotional geometry that borders on the Higher Math. Another variable implicit in Gloria: The status — the desirability quotient — of post-menopausal women, chiefly determined by aging men who behave as if they’re irresistible to firmer-fleshed younger females. Gloria doesn’t lie about a woman’s dwindling options. It’s rife with disappointment and humiliation. But bleakness does not preclude buoyancy. It still manages to leave you with the urge to dance.
This Chilean drama (directed by Sebastian Lelio) is a lovely surprise. Paulina Garcia plays Gloria, who’s first seen sitting alone at a bar as others boogie — a middle-class woman who’s obviously available, moderately attractive (she wears big, round red glasses), but overshadowed by younger or more chiseled beauties. She’s ten years divorced and still uncoupled. Her son is emotionally distant, her daughter (a yoga instructor whose class her mother takes) about to embark on a relationship with a peripatetic Swede. Her world is unstable. Santiago is in the throes of a transition from a military dictatorship to democracy, and few in her circle know what’s what. In the apartment above her, an unseen man rants into the night, his grasp of reality increasingly tenuous. His cat has wandered in — a skeletal, hairless beast. But there’s something indefatigable about her. When Gloria drives, she sings along to pop songs full of hope.
What makes Garcia’s performance so wonderful is how she portrays indefiniteness. She is open without being fatuous — always game, always slightly wary. Watch her face when her daughter asks, of a new suitor, “Who is this guy, mom?” Damned if she knows. He has descended on her out of the blue — an older, retired navy man named Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez). His ardor is hard to resist. But there are worrying signs. There’s something pleading in his demeanor. His hinges seem a little loose. And he’s besieged by calls from his ex-wife and overly dependent daughters.
Lelio’s style is understated, but with Garcia front and center (is there a shot she isn’t in?), the images vibrate. Above I called her “moderately attractive” — the male gaze at its most judgmental. That’s how I saw her at first, but as the film goes along, she becomes more and more radiant — as people do in life when you know them better. You don’t want to look away for fear of missing something in her face — even in an excruciating sequence when she’s drunk and easy prey. Gloria builds to the song of that name. It was written by Umberto Tozzi and a disco hit for Laura Brannigan, but in English its meaning was changed. It wasn’t meant to be about a woman nobody wants. Here, in Spanish, it’s positively throbbing with possibilities. Imagine another song, “Is that all there is my friend? / Then let’s keep dancing,” in the key of ecstasy instead of defeat. In an uncertain world, you can be sure of this.