Private Life (2018)

Rates: * * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? Working my way through Indiewire’s Top 100 Films of the Decade I have not seen.

Cast, crew, etc.


Richard and Rachel are a New York couple in advanced middle age, who want to start a family. Having gone from traditional means, to IVF, to adoption, all without success, they are ready to consider more unusual options. Their misfit niece, an aspiring writer who feels more connected to the couple than her immediate family, wants to help; offering to become an egg donor and so part of the future child’s genetic makeup. Is this the right thing for any of these characters? No one is sure.

Actors in peak form, and that dog on the left.

Tamara Jenkins’ beautifully constructed comedy drama is a movie about infertility, that is also about a lot more. It is firstly the study of a long term relationship. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti play the principals, and their chemistry is sublime. They are alike in many ways; both neurotic, slightly impractical, artistic types. Rachel has a more forceful personality, and is less filtered and diplomatic, Richard is more considerate but also less emotional, slightly aloof. But these differences have proved to be complimentary, and have strengthened their bond. Both actors are in peak form, Hahn is especially great, and they produce a well rounded portrait of two people who know every aspect of each other.

The film also provides a frank look at the difficulty of trying to access fertility treatment. IVF can work wonders for couples who cannot conceive naturally, but it is also expensive and arduous, and the success rates are actually pretty low. Plus: the treatments required come with a host of side effects, especially for women, as different fertility boosters play havoc with their hormones. And this is a very public process, which links to the title; you are mostly sitting in rooms or corridors with a bunch of strangers going through the same thing, while your sex life and biology are discussed openly. This film mines these moments for laughs, but also allows you to share their awkward, emotional embarrassment.

They also form part of a wider look at the American health system. We live in an age of medical wonders; doctors and specialists understand our bodies in a very detailed way, and there’s little that they can’t treat. But high end medicine comes at a steep price. There is a striking scene where Richard is informed by their ever cheery infertility doctor that his semen is lacking in sperm; but not to worry, a simple procedure will fix the problem, at the cost of a mere $10K (which he borrows from his brother). It underlines the two tier nature of modern health care, where people with means can have whatever they want, and people without get an apologetic shrug.

The film is very personal. In interviews, Jenkins has spoken about her own difficulties in getting pregnant later in life, and subsequent wrangling with fertility treatment. In an interview in The Guardian she said: ‘Second-wave feminism is culpable, for lulling women into a false sense of fertility. Ditto selective media reporting. You read in People magazine about celebrities having babies at 49, and nobody’s saying: ‘Well, it’s probably not her eggs and it cost her $87,000 and years of heartbreak.’ It’s fucked up.’ It is a choice that women still have to face: career or family. The ones who want both have a hard road to follow.

All of this makes the film sound very serious, but it maintains a light touch, and has many moments of pure comedy. The dialogue has a particular sparkle, and Hahn and Giamatti deftly draw laughs from the most basic of scenarios; I laughed out loud at Giamatti’s struggles with the TV during a sperm donation, and Hahn’s unfiltered reactions to events are frequently hysterical. The wider cast is also excellent; I especially enjoyed Kayli Carter as the confused potential egg donor, and veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch as Giamatti’s sympathetic brother.

Well made, intelligent, funny and heartfelt.

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