Gloria and Philomena: Travels with mums

Ryan Gilbey praises two new films, by Sebastián Lelio and Stephen Frears, in which two women are coping with the wreckage of their lives from the far side of middle age.

Gloria (15). Philomena (12A)
dir: Sebastián Lelio. dir: Stephen Frears

It’s not so much rare as unprecedented for audiences to be presented with two films about the emotional lives of middle-aged or elderly women in the same week. Gloria is an optimistic character study of a 58-year-old divorcee on the Santiago singles circuit, while Philomena is the story of a woman in her seventies trying to trace the child she gave birth to 50 years earlier. The differences in the approach and sensibility of each film are obvious enough to allow them to work as a mutually nourishing double bill. They also happen to share the same approximate message, pertinent to modern-day cinemagoers as to human beings in general: don’t put up with a bad lot. Don’t settle.

With her amused, sceptical eyes framed by whopping Deirdre Barlow glasses, Gloria (Paulina García) greets the world around her as a faintly baffling joke. She has an office job, two adult children and an apartment through which a pink, hairless cat, ignored by its lovesick owner upstairs, is given to padding uninvited. The camera picks out Gloria at the bar in a packed disco. On the dance floor, she makes eyes at the crumpled Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a former navy man who runs his own paintballing park. Soon she’s in bed with him, in a scene that breaks one of the persistent taboos of sex in cinema: thou shalt not show bodies that have succumbed to gravity, unless for comic effect.

The precedents for such stories are often simplistically celebratory (Shirley Valentine) or grimly cautionary (Looking for Mr Goodbar). Gloria takes another tack. The tone is one of scrutiny: it’s a highly interested piece of work that explores how Gloria’s decisions, philosophy and future are shaped by those around her – from her daughter, Ana (Fabiola Zamora), a footloose young woman on the verge of responsibility; to Rodolfo, who brings with him an entire airport carousel’s worth of baggage; to the fluid setting of Chile itself. It would have been easy to sneer at the singles bars, mid-range hotels, yoga classes and cluttered flats, but Lelio’s compositions are buzzing with vitality: there isn’t a judgemental frame in the entire film.

Gloria’s journey is free from artificial flashpoints or climaxes. (Her one extravagantly triumphant act is as ridiculous as it is inspirational.) Instead, it assumes mythic dimensions. Totems and portents pop up along the way as if in a dream or quest: a skeleton puppet with clacking bones influences one decision she makes, and the appearance of a luminous peacock prefigures another. Then there’s that ugly cat, which perches in a memorable shot beside the naked Gloria, as though standing sentry over Sleeping Beauty.

The audience never feels cornered into its emotional responses to Lelio’s film, whereas Philomena is all about pressing our buttons. That is no slight. There are button-pushers and then there is Stephen Frears, who knows how to calibrate precisely the revelations that litter this fact-based story, without making us too ashamed of any gasps or goosebumps.

Steve Coogan brings the nicely clipped style of the screenplay he has co-written with Jeff Pope to his portrayal of Martin Sixsmith, the journalist and former Labour communications director. He grudgingly takes on a human-interest story concerning Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was installed in a convent after falling pregnant in 1950s Ireland; nuns took her son from her arms to be adopted by persons unknown. On the occasion of her child’s 50th birthday she resolves to find him.

What follows is a road movie hampered by the episodic nature of that form. Even a director as experienced as Frears can’t make endless establishing shots and footage of driving feel fresh, any more than he can pretend that scenes of Dench chirpily spouting the word “clitoris” isn’t shamelessly playing to the gallery.

Yet the emotional core of the movie is honourable. The rapport between Dench and Coogan resists mawkishness; although there is a pay-off scene in which authority is challenged, there is much in the story and the central relationship that is unresolved. Dench is as poignantly controlled here as she was in Notes on a Scandal. Her pursed lips twitch weakly, giving no hint to the outside world of the traumatic flashbacks to which we have access. Like Frears and Coogan, she is a grand keeper-inner.

The floodgates could have been taken off their hinges by the sentimental weight of the material but the actors and director keep everything in check. Just.

Gravity's angel: Paulina García trawls the singles bars of Santiago in Sebastian Lelio's "Gloria".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism