Venice 2017: Toback’s The Private Life of a Modern Woman

The Daily — Sep 3, 2017

“With writer-director James Toback, you never know quite what you’re going to get, quality-wise,” writes Glenn Kenny at “What you do know you’re going to get is something very indicative of the personality of James Toback—defiant, searching, self-indulgent, absurdist, plain absurd, and more. . . . His new picture is The Private Life of a Modern Woman, and it opens with booming classical music (the composers are Brahms, Bach, and Shostakovich) and shifting split-screens, which show Sienna Miller undulating in bed as if suffering a nightmare. We are privy to the nightmare, in which a wool-capped man confronts her in her spectacular apartment (her character is a film actress) and pulls a gun on her. She adopts a pose of seduction, wrests the gun from him, and shoots him. Is it accidentally or inadvertently or neither? This is what her character, Vera, tries to puzzle out over the next day. Because it wasn’t a dream: she really did kill the guy, and put him in a trunk.”

Then, as the Guardian’s Xan Brooks tells it, she “dumps his body in the Hudson and then prepares to face the music and yes, quite literally, dance. The remainder of the film plays out as a series of visitations and lengthy exchanges. Here comes Alec Baldwin as Detective McKutcheon of the NYPD. And now here’s Charles Grodin, actually rather good as her grandpa with dementia, constantly confusing the apartment for a restaurant and wondering who the hell owns it. Then there are the other, less tangible visitations; the ghosts and demons that rear up to grab Vera. . . . Toback’s film is defiantly rough-edged and loose, still wet from workshopping; a trail of half-formed ideas.”

“What a pompous chore it is,” finds the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, “just seventy-one minutes long, but so toenail-tweakingly pleased with itself, and so replete with pseud-ish posturing, that by the end it feels as if the whole thing must have been playing at quarter-speed. It is built around a plausible, commanding and deeply felt performance from Sienna Miller that would be worth watching under any other imaginable circumstances. But not these ones.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, on the other hand, finds that the film bears “the formal compactness of a taut short story but the moral weight of a 19th century Russian novel . . . Building quickly to two long and transfixing scenes that have no cinematic precedents that come to mind, this is a small but weighty film . . . Toback makes the payoff moments at the end feel just right.”

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman finds The Private Life of a Modern Woman to be “a cinematic crazy-quilt: part thriller, part confessional, part wacked family exposé. It’s another of Toback’s antic meditations on our hidden aggression and madness, and in Sienna Miller he has found a quicksilver, exposure-without-makeup actress who is more than game to chart the wayward interior of a fractured femme fatale. As long as the movie sticks to its central incident, it exerts a sticky pull.”

Update, 9/6:Private Life is a hit-and-miss piece with some fine performances, much self-indulgence, sometimes excruciatingly literary dialogue, and a strong, emotionally nuanced central turn from Sienna Miller that holds it all together when dramatic coherence falters,” writes Jonathan Romney for Screen. “A decidedly old-fashioned movie of feelings and ideas, this won’t raise Toback’s ever-wavering profile, but at least it proves him game for a challenge and unashamed to look, let’s say, studenty in his earnestness—which feels somehow commendable for a director of his vintage.”

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