Coming to the Storyhouse cinema this week is Gloria Bell, the story of a middle aged divorcee (Julianne Moore) who spends her nights letting loose on nightclub dance floors across L.A. She meets a man, Arnold (John Turturro) and begins an unexpected whirlwind romance. One of our Young Content Creators Jon talks us through his very personal response to the film and how loneliness is portrayed on screen. For more info and to book tickets, click here.
The camera pans down from a 1970s inspired light-up ceiling to a crowd of middle-aged folk, bopping along to Gloria Gaynor’s ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’. Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) stands alone at the bar with her back to the camera, her body slightly swaying to the music. The room is filled with soft pink and blue strobe lights. As the camera moves in, she turns slowly, wearing a patterned wrap dress and large framed glasses. She scans the room, a martini in hand. She’s not looking for anyone in particular. She’s surveying the scene.
In that one shot, within the first two minutes of Gloria Bell, Sebastian Lelio’s remake of his own 2013 film Gloria, I could tell two things. One, I was going to like this film and, two, there was going to be something about it that would stick with me because I’ve felt that feeling and, I imagine, a lot of people have.
You’ve just bought a drink and you’re stood alone at the bar, maybe you’re not as drunk as you would like to be or maybe you don’t drink. Your friends are on the dancefloor or in the bathroom, and you look around and see everyone else. All the sweaty people dancing, the group of eighteen year olds doing shots, the barman sweeping the room for empty glasses, the couple snogging in the corner, and you can feel a sort of sadness. As if maybe everything is somehow passing you by and you’re standing alone in a bar at 3am wondering how? But you can also see some possibility in it. Maybe in that room there is someone you’ll end up having sex with, or you’ll meet someone in the smoking area and they will become the most interesting person you’ve ever met. You might run into an old friend or make some new ones. Maybe your favourite song will play and you’ll feel some kind of exuberant ecstasy as you dance there’s no tomorrow on the dancefloor, having the night of your life. But more often than not you go home alone and a little dissatisfied, wondering why you bothered at all, just as Gloria does.
It’s for that reason that I took Gloria to heart because being alone is central to her being. Gloria is a women who wants to be needed and places her own value in how much other people need her. When her son’s baby cries she’s always the first to offer to go and tend to it or when her daughter is moving to Sweden, she wants to go to the gate at the airport in case there’s anything more she can do. She wants other people to know how much she’s needed too, like when she ‘accidentally’ let’s slip a piece of personal information her daughter has told her in front of her ex-husband – who clearly didn’t know. It’s as if Gloria wants to prove to the world, and to herself, that she has a purpose. These different acts are small but they all add up to realised vision of a woman who’s not really certain about the focus of her life. Her children are grown up, her ex-husband has remarried and her mother seems to be doing just fine. But if these people around her no longer need her, then what does she have?
Lelio hones in on that loneliness and fear. He often places Gloria alone on the frame as she leaves messages on her kids answering machines, folds laundry, drives to work listening to disco music, or tries to sleep while her neighbour goes through a mental breakdown. It feels reminiscent of Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman in some early scenes as we watch Gloria live her life, day-to-day. It’s nothing spectacular but it’s also deeply fascinating.
But Gloria is an optimist at heart. She still enjoys going out, meeting new people, and, most of all, dancing (‘Well, when the world blows up, I hope I go down dancing,’ she announces at dinner with friends). That optimism is ultimately her tool for seeking a way out of that loneliness, even at her own detriment. When she meets another divorcée, Arnold (John Turturro) she ignores numerus red flags about his level of commitment and his connection to his supposedly divorced ex-wife. She sees them, she acknowledges them, and then actively ignores them. She even voices her irritation at them but ultimately allows him chance after chance.
Once the film finished, with maybe my favourite final fifteen minutes of any film this year that involves a paintball gun and the song ‘Gloria’ by Laura Brannigan, I knew why it resonated with me.
I am Gloria Bell.
No, I’m not a middle-aged divorced woman with two grown-up kids but I’ve felt so much of what Gloria feels. I’ve dated men who have been bad for me, ignoring constant red flags, because the alternative of being alone felt far worse. I’ve felt that panic as people prepare to uproot and move away because, if they’re gone then, who is going to need me. I’ve sang along to disco music in my car feeling the upbeat rhythm and dejected lyrics. I’ve felt that need to prove to others that I have value and worth because if they don’t believe it then I might not either. But, most importantly, I feel that loneliness every day.
Gloria’s loneliness stems from various different places and so does mine. I’ve dealt with grief and loss due my parents deaths (in 1995 and 2012) that, at times, leaves me feeling empty team that with some low self-esteem and anxiety and you’ve got a winning cocktail. So, Gloria and I don’t share the exact same brand of loneliness, but we overlap. We both traverse the same emotional territory and in a way it’s like our versions of loneliness are cousins. I’ve felt that fear that Gloria has. I’ve offered to give friends a lift to the airport or train station, pick up what they need from the shop while I’m there, cooked meals, said ‘yes’ to things I don’t want to do, cleaned, checked on their dogs while they’re away, and so much more and they were all acts of self-preservation. If I’m able to solidify myself as an important and needed part of people’s lives then it means I’m less likely to be left alone. Can you see why Gloria rang so true to me?
Gloria knows, just as I do, that when people leave, if they pass away, move cities or check out emotionally, they take a part of you with them and they don’t leave anything in its place. So there are these vacuums in you, these gaps, that are empty and loneliness fills them up. It stays there until you can find a replacement but even then, a replacement is never an exact fit and, there will always be cracks and gaps that the loneliness hides in.
This essay has been somewhat hard to write because I’ve always had trouble expressing my loneliness. It’s seen as being so incredibly gloomy and sad that who would admit to it? I only recently, over dinner one night and testing the waters for this essay, told a friend casually that I consider myself to be an ‘intrinsically lonely person’ and she nearly cried.
We see loneliness as this big ominous spectre that haunts us when we’re isolated but in fact it’s something much more close to us than we realise. It’s a state of mind. It’s something that can grow over time from so many different places and it doesn’t come from sitting in a cabin on the side of the highest mountain with no one to talk to or being stranded on a desert island, it comes from the everyday. It comes from people getting married while you’re still single, people passing away, feeling like maybe your friends are closer to each other than they are to you, carrying forward bullying from high school that makes it difficult to trust or relate to people, insecure connections due to social media, or even societal pressure to live your life a certain way and somehow you’re getting it ‘wrong’.
But the irony is, we’re not alone in our loneliness. In 2018, approximately nine million people in the UK said they often felt lonely and BBC Radio 4 found that 40% of people between the ages of 16 and 24 feel lonely most of the time, and 29% of people between 65 and 74 said the same. Even with all that information, it’s still something we don’t talk about. In her book The Lonely City, Olivia Laing writes, ‘So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive.’ That’s what I’ve done for so many years. To admit I’m lonely, especially if I’m surrounded by friends, feels like I’m a failing. If the human experience is about making connections and I’m not connecting enough to fill those gap in me then I can’t be doing ‘life’ right. But I’m realising now that it’s not true, because some wounds are too big to heal fully. The skin can come back together and scar over, but it’s never really the same.
That’s what’s so special about Gloria Bell. Cinema isn’t a place that often embraces the loneliness of everyday life. It tends to deal more in bigger picture, undeniable loneliness, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away or Sandra Bullock in Gravity. It rarely looks so intently at people, living their everyday lives and feeling lonely. Even in smaller independent films like Lost in Translation, Her, or In The Mood For Love, loneliness is expressed as a consequence of either displacement in a foreign city, advancing technology, the outing of an affair, or some other circumstance. It seldom comes from a place within.
The most recent example of something similar to Gloria Bell that I can think of, is the 2017 film by Clare Denis Let the Sunshine In. In which Juliette Binoche searches to make a real human connection with various different men. ‘It’s like my love life is all behind me. It’s all over. There’s nothing left,’ Isabelle (Binoche) says, holding back tears in a restaurant bathroom. Like Gloria, Isabelle is a bundle of contradictions, complicated, and messy so she feels so true and real. And, if you’re thinking I didn’t shed a tear when she dances, slowly and melancholically, to ‘At Last’ by Etta James then you’d be gravely mistaken.
I don’t want you to read this essay and feel any kind of pity. Loneliness is something that is a part of me. It may well subside and become less prominent as the years go on or it could get worse. In January 2019, actress Jenny Slate, in an interview with Vulture, said ‘I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that there will always be a ribbon of loneliness running through who I am […] You can use that ribbon to be a part of a finer tapestry, or you can choke yourself out with it! Your choice!’ And I’ve made that choice. It is part of me, as it’s part of Gloria, as it’s part of nine million others in the UK. I’ve made the choice to write about it, to out myself as a lonely person, to say that it’s a struggle every day to try and work towards reducing that swell, to say that loneliness doesn’t exist only in isolation, and to say that loneliness, while hard to deal with, has informed so much of who I am and my work.
It informs Gloria too. She is me and she might well be you. She embodies that desire to feel needed and important to others in a way I’ve never seen before. She is complex, needy, independent, emotional, lonely, strong, confident, sad, and happy all at once. She takes life one disco song at a time and remains optimistic for the future. She represents hope and despair all at once. So maybe we are all Gloria Bell.
This article was written by one of our Young Content Creators, an initiative ran in conjunction with Young Storyhouse to provide budding content creators paid opportunities to showcase their unique voices within Storyhouse’s digital channels.
Young Content Creators are supported by Film Hub North, awarding funds from The National Lottery.