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Film Review: Private Life (Netflix)

12 November 2018
Appeared in BioNews 975

After watching the trailer for the 2018 Netflix film Private Life, I was expecting a dramatic, yet funny and heartfelt tale about a couple struggling to have a child via assisted reproduction, who eventually discover that the family around them is all they truly needed to be happy. After watching the film, I discovered that the plot of the film was quite different from the teaser. But I was not at all disappointed. 

There are some truly heartfelt moments in this film, but there are also many painful and emotional ones that make it feel like a dark comedy on the edge of tragedy. That this grittier theme didn't shy away from the lows of assisted reproduction and made the overall story feel more raw and authentic.

The story follows a 40-something New York couple Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) who are trying to have a child by what Richard's brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) refers to as the 'by any means necessary' approach. When the film opens, we meet Richard and Rachel about to undergo 'the retrieval' phase of an IVF procedure, while simultaneously seeking adoption.

We soon discover that this round of IVF is not their first brush with fertility treatment, and that their current attempt to adopt was also not their first. We hear about Richard and Rachel's previous rounds of intrauterine insemination and run-in with an adoption scam. 

Their family members start viewing Richard and Rachel's perseverance as an unhealthy obsession. Richard's sister-in-law Cynthia (Molly Shannon), in a fit of frustration over discovering that her husband is going to loan them US$10,000 for their IVF costs, refers to them as 'fertility junkies'. 

At first this comment seems overly judgmental, but as the film progresses and Rachel and Richard get pulled deeper into the world of assisted reproduction, the viewer may wonder if she's right. After the first round IVF fails, Rachel and Richard are pushed to consider an option that was previously unthinkable to them: conceiving via an egg donor.

It is at this point of increasing friction between the couple where Richard's 25-year-old step-niece Sadie (played by Kayli Carter) asks to stay with them in the city while she tries to reconfigure her future after failing her most recent college semester. Cynthia tries to hint to her daughter that it's a bad time to be reconnecting with the increasingly strung-out Richard and Rachel. But the story may suggest that in actuality, perhaps she is actually coming into their lives at exactly the right time.

As a writer for BioNews, I considered myself somewhat familiar with the struggles of pursuing various fertility treatments – the physical toll, the emotional toll, financial costs and social stigma. But I thought this film brought these struggles to life in a tangible and powerful way. Written and directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Tamara Jenkins, I thought she not only created an intriguing story, but produced a visual experience that pulled the viewer into Rachel and Richard's reality.

In the opening scene, where Richard gives Rachel one of her injections for IVF, the sounds of anxious breaths made me feel stressful anticipation. I felt it when a close-up on Rachel's hip showed the needle going in. Shots of a window ornament shaped like a pregnant woman banging repeatedly into the glass in a completely silent hospital waiting room was both an interesting visual metaphor, and made a sound that set me on edge and made me feel as uncomfortable as the many couples present waiting in silence. There were many moments like this – where the subtle use of camera angle, scene length or sound really brought the characters' experiences home.

I also greatly enjoyed the characters themselves. Giamatti and Kahn artfully portrayed a loving yet rocky relationship that somehow feels equal parts committed and unstable. We watch Richard go through the motions with a kind of fatigued resignation, while Rachel experiences passionate outbursts and volatile emotions. They played the ultimate burnt-out couple, and their relationship dynamic intrigued me, entertained me, and made me root for their fertility journey, while also questioning if it would lead to a happy ending for them.

Some of the scenes and dialogue seemed extraneous and didn't tie well into the overall story, but those moments didn't detract from my enjoyment of the film. Overall, the story was filled with drama, humour and tenderness with a variety of takeaway messages that touched on the beauty of unlikely family, the tragedies of obsession and the importance of the people we love. 

For BioNews readers, I thought that this film portrayed many of the issues that couples seeking assisted reproduction can face. The film discusses the high financial costs of their fertility treatments, down to the dollar. The film includes multiple shots of injections, doctors' visits, pill-taking and blood tests to convey the physical toll and time commitment. The film even touches on the varying degrees of stigma surrounding egg donation, both for the couple (with comments calling it 'science fiction') but also for the young women who want to donate (with comments about 'auctioning off family property').

It is hard to say whether the story of this film was dark, hopeful, or a mix of both, as my partner and I spent an entire evening debating the meaning and significance of the final scenes. It has been a while since a film prompted me to engage with it this analytically, which made Private Life truly enjoyable.

8 February 2021 - by Susan Tranfield-Thomas 
Making comedy out of the ups and downs of the adoption process is a bold move by most standards. Infertility and comedy aren't, after all, the easiest of bedfellows, and there will be no shortage of people like myself, ready to roll our eyes at the first sign of cliché and censure any attempt to create cheap laughs...
7 December 2020 - by Ahmed Amer 
Austria's Oscar submission, 'What We Wanted', addresses a couple's struggle with infertility and IVF failure...
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