It’s a moment we’ve witnessed in the movies a thousand times. Two people are fighting, one of them holding a gun, and when the other one tries to wrest it from him, they tussle a bit and the gun just…goes off. Boom! Like that. It’s an “accident” that has the cosmic convenience of killing somebody who deserved to die. (It’s homicide committed by happenstance.) “The Private Life of a Modern Woman,” James Toback’s loose-limbed existential meta-thriller, is built around just such an incident. Vera, a famous New York actress played with tremulous distraught layers by Sienna Miller, has let a reckless-punk petty-criminal ex-boyfriend (Nick Matthews) into her apartment. He attacks her, and the two draw close, his gun right there in between them. And then — boom! — he’s dead.
According to the logic of movies (or even life), Vera has nothing to feel guilty about; she was acting in pure, urgent self-defense. Nevertheless, she calls the emergency line and hangs up, then stuffs the body into her sky-blue travel trunk. The killing, you see, is a disturbing catharsis for her. It allows her, for the first time, to see the truth of her splintered identity — to realize that her ability to act and lie and compartmentalize, to show different faces to the world, calls her very being into question. She spends the rest of the movie asking, “Who am I?”
It’s a question the film often seems to be asking about itself. “The Private Life of a Modern Woman” is 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.
Vera, in her tan coat, red pashmina, and sunglasses, drags the tell-tale trunk down a SoHo sidewalk and then drives it upstate in her Mercedes hatchback, arriving at a rusty dock, where she dumps it into a bay. This may be the closest Toback has come to a vintage suspense trope (lurid flashbacks to the killing; the trunk leaving a pool of bubbles), all of it elevated by the dissonant romantic anxiety of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, which plays on the soundtrack so insistently that it becomes as much of an added character as Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho.” Vera is someone who expects to feel remorse, and is surprised when she doesn’t.
For a while, “The Private Life of a Modern Woman” suggests Toback’s skewed version of a “Law & Order: SVU” episode. Alec Baldwin shows up as an all-seeing, all-grinning Columbo/Javert detective who stares at our heroine and knows — because, you know, he just knows — that there’s got to be more to the mysterious disappearance he’s investigating than she’s letting on. You may wish that Toback had stuck with this stuff, because he’s good at it; he knows how to spin policier convention into something witty and barbed. Yet the movie turns out to be a collage, a let’s-try-it-on ramble that explores Vera’s identity through a series of semi-improvised dramatic movements. And that’s where it’s both more than a thriller and less.
Toback himself pops into Vera’s apartment and interviews her (“What are you writing?” “Do you feel rage at the core of your being?”). I phrase it that way because the filmmaker, in a fedora and wire rims, with his courtly insinuating badass-psychiatrist manner, is supposed to be playing someone close to Vera, but we learn absolutely nothing about how they know each other. Their “friendship” is just an abstract device, and their conversation feels less like a nugget of drama than like one of the simulated vérité scenes from Godard’s “Masculin Feminin.” It’s the director dropping in on his mentally jangled heroine to interrogate her soul for us.
There are other scenes that have a theoretical place in the film’s prismatic structure yet still play as digressions, like a potent episode that features Charles Grodin, blistering as Vera’s grandfather, who’s in the cruel grip of Alzheimer’s and is in a talky but impotent rage about it. (Toback should really get out of his ’70s-dread comfort zone and make an entire film about something like this. That would be existential.) Or a bizarre vignette in which Vera has a drink in her living room with Carl Icahn — yes, the actual Carl Icahn, playing himself. (He’s a friend of the grandfather’s, you see.) It’s hard to get past thinking: What’s he doing here?
“The Private Life of a Modern Woman” is a thrift-shop psychological X-ray that demands to be taken on its own Tobackian terms. But even on those terms, it spends too much time telling us things that it should be showing us. For a movie that’s out to explore the consciousness of a “modern woman,” it contains more mansplaining than an hour of “Fox & Friends.” For Toback, there appears to be major drama in the perception that a woman is capable of the same threatening vortex of aggression and duplicity that a man is. The film opens with flowing split-screen images of Hieronymous Bosch’s 15th-century triptych of transgression, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which adorns the main wall of Vera’s living room. It features all the teeming potential for human dastardliness that, by implication, lives inside her. That’s what makes her a modern woman. But it also makes her a projection of someone else’s fantasies.