'The Private Life of a Modern Woman': Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Short and sharp.

Sienna Miller stars in the latest from director James Toback, premiering out of competition at the Venice Film Festival.

With the formal compactness of a taut short story but the moral weight of a 19th century Russian novel, James Toback's misleadingly titled The Private Life of a Modern Woman shrewdly investigates how an accidental incident upends the equilibrium of a young woman who seems to have everything going for her. Building quickly to two long and transfixing scenes that have no cinematic precedents that come to mind, this is a small but weighty film that general audiences might find either too self-serious, given the profusion of classical music (Shostakovich's staggering “Leningrad” Seventh Symphony often booms from the soundtrack), or not provocative enough, given the potentially salacious innuendo emanating from the title. But as a study of moral and mental instability and an economically crafted work in which every piece has its purpose, this very short feature film, built around an intense central performance by Sienna Miller, will deliver to viewers willing to take it on its own rigorous dramatic terms.

Toback's first dramatic feature since When Will I Be Loved 13 years ago is, at 71 minutes, about 20 minutes shorter than what's normally considered minimum length for a theatrical feature. As such, it's unclear how viable it will be as a draw in cinemas, even if it is more of a full meal creatively than many works twice the length. On the other hand, running times are so flexible on the home screen now that this should prove an ideal candidate for cable and, perhaps especially, streaming services.

The film's unusual nature, its extreme contrast between the majestically bombastic and the privately personal, is established at the outset by the paralleling of Shostakovich's World War II-era evocation of monumental devastation and Bosch's magnificently perverse 16th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights with the quiet space inhabited by its introspective central character. This loaded combination leaves no doubt that serious stuff lies in store.

A beautiful woman, Vera (Miller), tosses and turns in bed, convulsed by intercut thoughts of a nasty struggle in her apartment between her and her ex, Sal (Nick Mathews), a wild-eyed druggie who demands cash but ends up dead when they both struggle for his gun. Based on the quick flashes of action we glimpse, it certainly looks like an accident.

It's uncertain, however, whether the event that's troubling Vera's sleep is real or just a nightmare, a fantasy, a latent wish. Impulsively, the distraught young woman drags the fresh corpse of her former boyfriend across the floor and stuffs him into a nice big trunk. Actual or imagined, the incident has rattled her and, in the film's least effective scene, she's visited by an immediately tiresome young man, who has some ill-defined claim on her affections and wants her to read his thesis about the theme of murder in Dostoevsky and Dickens; rather too on the nose, this. After indulging the insistent fellow with her patience for far too long, the agitated Vera finally insists, “It's not a good time.”

Her next visitor is an imposing gentleman, Franklin (Toback), a mentor of sorts who quizzes her with polite relentlessness about her troubled state of mind. The conversation is weird and unsettling. He's probing, insightful and suggestive, while she responds with babbling so hazy and generalized about her confused mental condition that it's hard to understand his attribution of special gifts to her; vague uncertainty coats her every utterance.

Once alone, however, Vera acts with extreme and risky decisiveness, driving out of town with the conspicuous blue trunk in the back of her equally conspicuous red Mercedes SUV and sending Sal down to the fishes. She pronounces herself not guilty, fortunate to have been able to determine her fate herself rather than leave it in the hands of 12 strangers, and so on with the rest of her life.

It may not be so simple, however, as a cop (Alec Baldwin) who's rather too expensively dressed turns up to inquire about the missing man. Like the others, however, he asks plenty of questions and gets little in the way of answers, leaving him suspicious.

But the tenor soon changes dramatically with the arrival of Vera's mother (Colleen Camp) and grandfather (Charles Grodin) for dinner. The latter is 85 and in the very angry throes of Alzheimer's. “I don't like what happening to me!” he yells more than once, his attempt at proper conversation emerging as a quicksilver blend of polite talk and abrupt rages. He simply can't stand it and, with 10 or 12 minutes, Grodin creates a scorching portrait of a man furious and terrified about his vanishing mind. It's a sensational scene.

The final interlude might seem madly implausible on the face of it, but no moreso than the actual presence of maverick corporate raider and hedgefund billionaire Carl Icahn in it playing himself. What he says and does is best kept undisclosed, but it can be plainly stated that the man is a natural onscreen, amusing and likeable, and he helps Vera assess her situation with a level gaze and inner calm.

Running beneath all these dramatically variable experiences like a subterranean stream is Vera's variable mental state, which reaches a climax of clarity at the end that retroactively focuses her mind and, in the process, sweeps away the unfocused babbling she's been uttering through most of the film. Although Miller is alive to every moment of her character's brief but fraught inner journey, it can't be denied that Vera's moral and emotional paralysis, and consequent inarticulateness most of the way, can be frustrating and makes it difficult to feel for and with her. Similarly, the title seems to promise potential intimate disclosures of “private” thoughts and experiences that are only fleetingly expressed. Instead, however, comes a moral reckoning of a sort that the most ambitious of novelists 150 years ago used to trade in, and Toback makes the payoff moments at the end feel just right.

Production company: Michael Mailer Films
Cast: Sienna Miller, Alec Baldwin, Charles Grodin, Colleen Camp, Carl Icahn, John Buffalo Mailer, Nick Matthews, Steven Prescod, Oliver 'Power' Grant, James Toback (uncredited)
Director-screenwriter: James Toback
Producers: Michael Mailer, Jennifer Gelfer, Martin Tuchman, Alan Helene, Valda Witt
Executive producers: Alessandro Penazzi, Angela Ceccio, Joshua Blum
Director of photography: Larry McConky
Production designer: Rick Butler
Costume designer: Melissa Vargas
Editor: Aaron Yanes
Casting: Billy Hopkins, Ashley Ingram
Venue: Venice Film Festival (out of competition)

71 minutes

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