The camera spies her from across a large room crowded with tipsy middle-aged minglers. The first thought is that she looks like Tootsie, with outsize owlish glasses emphasizing length of her face. But we quickly come to understand that Gloria (Paulina García) is a sophisticated, daring, sexy, mature woman. She’s 58, has two adult children she adores, an ex-husband she perhaps only tolerates. She sings along to power ballads on the car radio. She does yoga and laugh therapy. She loves to dance. She may be losing her sight, slowly. She meets a dubious ex-naval officer who recently changed his life, leaving his wife, though his daughters never stop calling. He’s struggling to inhabit a role that he can’t commit to, but look at the way he looks at Gloria. Can she really afford to turn him away?
Chilean director Sebastían Lelio’s fourth feature is a character study of uncommon brilliance, and García is captivating every moment she’s on-screen—which, come to think of it, is every moment of this film filled with telling ellipses, free of scoring, bubbling with incident, each one contributing to a deeper understanding of a woman of a certain age who refuses to stop changing, searching, dreaming, even if that means she might wind up alone one painful morning, on a Viña beach, with torn stockings. See this movie. It’s beautiful, smart, moving. Like its heroine, it follows its own path.
I spoke with Lelio earlier this week in Panama. He was there for an award ceremony. I was there for the film festival, where Gloria was screening.
Director Sebastián Lelio
JB: Your scripts don’t have any dialogue, so you depend on your actors to provide the words in every scene. But in this case you’re dealing with Paulina García, who besides being an incredible actress is also a writer. She must have had strong intuition about how to work those scenes.
Sebastián Lelio: Yes, but that kind of intuition can be a problem just as easily as a solution. Sometimes that intuition makes you want to say something very meaningful, and that can be the enemy of the kind of dialogue I’m looking for, which isn’t meant to be informative or even literate. It’s emotional. It’s not text, but texture. Perhaps 70% of the dialogue in Gloria is irrelevant. They could say one thing or another. Dialogue isn’t the point.
JB: Some of the scenes that stuck with me most are those in which their significance isn’t obvious. I think especially of the scene at the party, with the father and daughter singing Jobim's “Waters of March,” and Gloria just listening with that curious gaze of hers. That’s the entire scene. I can’t say exactly what’s happening there, but it feels important. Some kind of quiet discovery is happening, though I don’t know that Gloria is even aware of it.
SL: I would say that this scene is the soul of the film. Gloria is, for me, a bossa nova, a form which is sensual, but the lyrics can be very harsh. I wanted the film to be like that. You’re trapped by the storytelling and the character. Hopefully there is a sensuality in the textures and rhythms. Hopefully you’re sort of hypnotized and just really in the film. “The Waters of March” is about everyday things, a chair, a ray of light, a little piece of bread. That’s what the film deals with. It’s all about feelings.
JB: Did working with García help you discover things you didn't know about the character? Were you surprised what happened to Gloria in her hands?
SL: I try to conceive of scripts as open devices. The problems are not solved in the script. That’s the territory of the shooting. I need to make the real discoveries during the shooting. So yes, Paulina and the whole process were always revealing to me not only the nature of the character but also what the film was really about. When you go to camera, you go half-blind. There is a point where words are useless. Someone has to trust that we’re going to get somewhere with this map we’re sharing. That’s where the mystery of cinema lies. I never understood Gloria. I was fascinated by her. And now I have to deal with this problem that women think I understand them. I don’t! I love them. I don’t understand them.
JB: You're a 40-year-old man, not a 58-year-old woman. But in exploring your desire to tell this story did you wind up seeing some reflection of yourself?
SL: That’s an interesting question. I guess my main connection with the character, or what I admire about her, is that she’s willing to live her life without fear of what price she has to pay for it. She might be making mistakes, but she’s alive. She manages to keep that way of being in the world. I would like to be like that. So I guess it’s like a message that you send to yourself in a very unconscious way. The other important message is, Relax, you will keep having sex for many, many years. [Laughs]