IT IS rare for a director to remake their own film. Some auteurs, once they have accrued wisdom and status, return to early or lesser works to improve upon them. Alfred Hitchcock went back to “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) in 1956, and turned his unpolished mystery into a big Hollywood thriller, replete with movie stars and exotic locations. Michael Mann turned his little-seen television movie “L.A. Takedown” into “Heat”, his masterpiece. More common is foreign-language directors remaking their hits for American audiences. Yet the results—such as “The Vanishing” (1993), originally released in 1988 as “Spoorloos” in the Netherlands, or “Cold Pursuit” (2019), a version of Norway’s “In Order of a Disappearance” (2014)—almost always disappoint.
Sebastián Lelio, a Chilean director, attracted Hollywood’s attention with “A Fantastic Woman” (2017), nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and “Disobedience” (2018). When film executives came knocking, he agreed to a remake of “Gloria” (2013), his best film, about the social life of a middle-aged divorcée. The project was appealing, he has said, as it provided an opportunity to work with Julianne Moore (who takes over the lead role from Paulina García). The new film, “Gloria Bell”, forges a collaboration between one of America’s greatest actresses and a great director of women.
Middle age is a crossroads, and when the viewer meets the bracingly ordinary Gloria, she is searching for a path. She has been divorced for 12 years, maintaining a friendly relationship with her ex-husband (Brad Garrett); recently her children have stopped needing her, too. Her son (Michael Cera) has a new baby and is estranged from his wife, but he rejects all of Gloria’s offers of help. Her pregnant daughter is moving to Sweden. A stray cat keeps turning up in Gloria’s home, taunting her with an image of her future as a stereotypical “crazy cat lady”.
Then she meets Arnold (John Turturro), a sad, newly divorced man, at a bar. He comes on strong, soon offering schoolboy declarations of love. Gloria tries to overlook the warning signs—particularly his intense relationship with his ex-wife and two grown-up daughters—but she is flattered by the attention and desperate for a meaningful connection. The allure of a charming, interested man proves too powerful to ignore.
Unsurprisingly, this is all quite similar to how things unfolded in the original film. Mr Lelio uses virtually the exact same camera set-ups, cuts and dialogue for every scene. He inserts a few new exchanges to contextualise his characters—including a bit about plastic surgery that is pertinent to its Los Angeles setting—but this will do little for viewers who have recently seen the version from 2013.
Some of the original details do not translate well to their new surroundings. The singles’ events, hosted in disco ballrooms with neon lights and power ballads, seem antiquated. Gloria’s unfamiliarity with Arnold’s business (he runs a paintball park) does not ring true. Perhaps it was more plausible that a middle-aged woman in Chile several years ago had never heard of this recreational activity, but it is less likely in a modern American city.
The most significant change is to the protagonist’s character. Ms García’s Gloria was a woman approaching the social challenges of middle age with a fearsome confidence, occasionally reducing Arnold to tears. That was what made the character so unusual, and so compelling. Ms Moore, conversely, opts for a more vulnerable approach. When Arnold first approaches her and asks if she is happy, she replies with candour: “Some days I’m happy, some days I’m not.” Her openness borders on puzzling naiveté. When they visit Las Vegas and stay at Caesar’s Palace, she gazes in wonder at the tawdry casino. “It’s beautiful,” she sighs, without a hint of irony.
As the original Gloria was more hardened, she seemed to weather the humiliations inflicted upon her. Ms Moore’s portrayal is more likely to make the viewer cringe, and the film refuses to romanticise her experiences. It does not prop Gloria up with a stirring musical score, or allow her to indulge in much fantasy. Even the scenes where she sings along to the radio in her car—a device most directors use as catharsis—seem more like mindless ritual.
“Gloria Bell” is an aimless and unnecessary retread, but that seems not to matter to critics or to the public. The film is already being praised as a correction to the few depictions of female middle age onscreen. There is value in telling ordinary, lesser-heard stories, and in refuting the notion that women of a certain age can only play supportive mothers or refined elder stateswomen. Still, “Gloria Bell” would make a bigger impact on that front if it were a better film.
“Gloria Bell” is screening in America now and will be released in Britain in June