When we first meet Gloria Bell, a divorced woman in her 50s in the film of the same name, one thing becomes swiftly evident: She’s comfortable being alone. We see a sated Gloria (Julianne Moore) seeking little more than a night out on the town where she can dance to her favorite ’80s disco music — with a partner or solo. She seems open to romantic connection — with subdued confidence, she’ll strike up conversations and cut a rug with strangers — but it’s clear that Gloria’s life will go on the next day, and the day after that, without a man.
Weathering divorce in your forties or fifties, raising kids as a single parent and navigating the dating scene can make for an existence fraught with awkward experiences, complicated situations, high highs and low lows. I know, because I’ve done it. Before entering the theater to see “Gloria Bell,” I was skeptical, thinking the movie might be another formulaic story of a struggling woman who must piece her shattered life back together after the dissolution of a marriage. I am happy to report it was nothing of the sort.
Divorce recovery, similar to recovery from other trauma, happens in stages. Many of them are messy. Seven years ago, I found out my husband was having an affair. At first, I tried to fix my marriage. I considered moving overseas to be with my husband, where he was working, and attempt a fresh start, but ultimately I realized our marriage was dead — and his new relationship was a symptom of our marital issues, not the problem itself. My ex-husband and I are both happier since parting ways.
Still, navigating the dating scene after my divorce was tricky. I encountered all sorts of men over the years. Some were still entrenched in their marriages, and some didn’t know what they were looking for in a relationship — or if they were looking for one at all. After spending more than two decades with my ex-husband, I faced the same uncertainty early in my single life. Through trial and error, I gradually reached a deeper understanding of myself and became comfortable as a single woman.
Divorced for a decade, Gloria, too, has had time to figure out the rhythm of single life, as did the mother and friends of Chilean writer-director Sebastián Lelio. The women in Lelio’s life inspired his 2013 Spanish-language film, “Gloria.” Intrigued by the stories they shared with him — about the challenges they faced and how they continued to go out, dance and celebrate life’s small moments — Lelio created the film to honor those women and others like them. The message was so powerful and universal, Moore requested a meeting with Lelio in Paris in 2015 to discuss the movie and the possibility of a U.S. remake. Over lunch, the pair came to an agreement: Lelio would direct, and Moore would play Gloria.
Over two decades ago, Moore, in her brilliance, breathed depth and three-dimensionality into Amber Waves, the adult-film star she played in “Boogie Nights.” She brings the same humanity to Gloria. I had to bite my lip to keep from singing along as Gloria danced or rocked out in her car to Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” and Olivia Newton-John’s “A Little More Love.”
I am grateful that Lelio and Moore are shining a spotlight on both the struggles and satisfaction of middle-aged, post-divorce life, the periods of loneliness and euphoria that arise while figuring out what and who you love after leaving a long marriage. With some effort, a single life is by no means an empty life. In fact, it can be quite full.
Gloria, who works as an insurance agent, is the mother of a reasonably well-adjusted adult son and daughter (Michael Cera and Caren Pistorius), who are preoccupied with relationships of their own. She has friends and hobbies, too; there’s enough to fill her days. But when we witness her in solitary moments following a night out dancing — removing her makeup in front of the bathroom mirror, washing her undergarments in the sink, sleeping on one side of the bed — it’s apparent that there’s space in her life for more. Enter Arnold (John Turturro), a former Marine turned amusement park owner. He’s new to divorce, trying to distance himself from a demanding ex-wife and two not-so-well-adjusted children around the same ages as Gloria’s. Following a casual meeting and night of dancing, the pair end up in bed, sparking a romance both Gloria and the audience soon suspect may be short-lived.
After a series of dings and disappointments, Gloria eventually embarks on a mission to reclaim her dignity. Reeling from one bruising rejection, she first makes matters worse, then exacts revenge in an almost comedic fashion.
Like Gloria, I reclaimed my dignity just days after my husband announced he was leaving me. While he was out, I found a nightie he bought for his mistress. In a moment of uncontrollable anger, I cut up the lingerie with scissors, believing that act would make me feel better. It didn’t. Instead, I felt worse because I didn’t like who I was becoming, assuming the role of scorned wife. After telling my husband what I’d done, I went to the store and replaced the gift I destroyed. The experience was surreal, but it helped me become the woman I am today — self-aware, strong and, most importantly, resilient.
It should hardly come as a spoiler that the movie, which begins with Gloria dancing, ends with her doing the same. Yes, that part’s predictable, but it brings a certain comfort. Hearts break, but there’s beauty in knowing we can mend them, too.
Stacey Freeman is a writer, editor and single mom of three kids.