With Gloria Bell, Sebastián Lelio continues to celebrate the lives of older women, writes Alistair Harkness
When Chilean director Sebastián Lelio won last year’s foreign language Oscar with A Fantastic Woman he was overwhelmed by the subsequent reaction it had in his home country. Not only did the film mark the first time the award had gone to Chile (cementing the country’s recent cinematic rebirth in the process), the exposure it gave this subtly wrought drama about the daily prejudices facing a transgender woman helped bring about actual political change: six months after the Oscars, the Chilean senate approved the Gender Identity Bill, allowing transgender people to legally change their name and sex on official documents.
“That was really something,” says Lelio, over the phone from London. “It’s not only because of the Oscar, but the Oscar contributed to the public discussion. We never expected it to go that far. The ideal situation is that somehow a film overflows from the screen and makes it into the fabric of society. And in this case it was especially strong. It’s something you cannot plan; you can only witness it.”
Bearing witness is something Lelio’s films do very well. That’s perhaps unsurprising given his background. Having grown up under the military dictatorship and come of age just as democracy was being restored in the 1990s, he’s part of the first wave of Chilean filmmakers to emerge in the wake of Pinochet. “Film schools had been banned and they dismantled the very fragile Chilean industry,” says Lelio, outlining why his country’s national cinema has only really come into its own in the last decade. “When we started studying, this was all under the process of reconstruction. It’s the renaissance of an industry that was killed by the military dictatorship. We belong to that generation that are hungry for films and eager to tell stories in this medium.”
Lelio isn’t as overtly political as fellow Chilean filmmaker and frequent collaborator Pablo Larraín, who has dealt directly with the legacy of “the disappeared” in hard-hitting movies such as Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No. But he does gravitate towards protagonists who are invisible to society at large in other ways. That’s most obvious in trans actress Daniela Vega’s performance in A Fantastic Woman, but its true too of the Orthodox Jewish lesbian characters Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams played in last year’s London-set Disobedience. And it’s certainly true of the eponymous 58-year-old divorcée of his 2013 international breakthrough film Gloria, which he’s now remade as Gloria Bell, with Julianne Moore in the Paulina García role.
All these films are also female-centric stories, which seems telling, even if Lelio finds it hard to intellectualise why that might be. “I’ve just been moved by the idea of taking these characters, who are somehow at the fringes of mainstream narrative, and saying they deserve a film, that [their lives] are cinematic. There’s something inspiring for me about that.”
Not that Gloria Bell – which is the reason he’s on the line and which he’s transposed from Santiago to Los Angeles – should be mistaken for an issue movie. On the contrary, it’s a very funny and richly drawn character study about a disco-loving woman (Moore) negotiating the LA singles’ scene as she tries to figure out whether a potential new relationship with John Turturro’s socially awkward divorcée is worth pursuing. But if it’s not politically charged in the way that A Fantastic Woman was, casting Moore and having her play her real age in a film set in the home of the film industry does give it a political edge. The #MeToo movement, after all, has forced Hollywood to belatedly reckon with its own sexist and abusive ways, but it has also refocused attention on the extent to which the American cinematic landscape is largely bereft of stories about women, particularly women over the age of 40 or 50.
“Yeah, there is a lack of films about women above this age,” agrees Lelio, who based the original film on stories his mother and her friends shared with him about their experience of being divorced middle-aged women. “The game of this film was to take a character that would be a secondary character in a standard film. She would be the mother or the wife and the camera would go with someone else. But the camera here stays with Gloria. It’s kind of the ultimate portrait of a 58-year-old woman.
She’s observed from every possible angle, she’s always in the frame and she’s going through the entire emotional spectrum. And if you change the actress, somehow the DNA changes, even though you are telling the same story. That was quite wonderful to realise. It was so interesting to see Julianne channelling the character and see the nuances and the subtleness of her interpretation.”
The way Lelio tells it, Moore came on board thanks to a miscommunication. “I was about to start shooting A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience back-to-back, so my mind was really occupied with that,” he says, picking up the story. “I was told by my manager that Julianne had seen Gloria, had loved the film, but didn’t want to have anything to do with a remake. That’s what I understood anyway, but she also wanted to meet with me.” Being a big fan of her work, he wasn’t about to turn down the chance to have lunch with Julianne Moore and, after chatting for an hour about how much she liked the character, he thanked her for being so generous with her time and told her he understood why she wasn’t interested in doing a remake. “Then she said, ‘No, I only want to do it if you’re directing it,’” laughs Lelio. “So I immediately
said, ‘OK, I only want to do it if you’re in it.’”
This was all pre-Oscar. Indeed Lelio had finished Gloria Bell and Disobedience (his English-language debut) by the time A Fantastic Woman triumphed last year. “Those things are Oscar innocent,” he says. “The post-Oscar time for me comes now. There’s certainly more attention, interest and opportunities,” he adds. “That’s really the reward behind the award: the right to continue.” n
Gloria Bell is in cinemas from Friday