Austria's Oscar submission, 'What We Wanted', addresses a couple's struggle with infertility and IVF failure. The drama, which serves as the writing and directorial debut for Ulrike Kofler, focuses on the emotional struggle the protagonists endure and the subsequent strain on their relationship. As with any drama, there are a few twists and turns along the way.
Lavinia Wilson and Elyas M'Barek play the roles of the estranged couple, Alice and Niklas, with aplomb, and their acting was arguably the film's strongest point. The tension between the couple could be felt from the onset as they are informed of yet another miscarriage; and as this was their fourth failed round of IVF, further IVF treatment will no longer be state funded; all just before a declined credit card transaction at the clinic.
To get their mind off the trauma of the miscarriage, the couple take a break and go to a resort in Sardinia. But things don't go according to plan. Being mistakenly given a room with an extra child's bed and then a family of four moving in next door serve as reminders of the couple's childless marriage. As M'Barek's character jokes, they are going through 'confrontation therapy'.
The family next door serves as a canvas on which Alice and Niklas expose the intricacies and dynamics of their strained relationship. While Niklas appears to have a greater grip with their struggles, we find that he is refusing to acknowledge how he feels about their past experiences and is actively trying to distract himself with their trip. When Alice wants to sit and talk about their struggles, he instead resorts to escapism and seeks distractions in the form of a new friendship with the father of the family next door, Romed (Lukas Spisser). Alice on the other hand, comes across as the brooding 'sad lady', as described by the younger daughter of the family next door, Denise (Iva Höpperger) is visibly unimpressed by how things are going for the couple. Alice's dynamic with the children of their holiday neighbours was memorable. Her rocky relationship with Denise was equally confusing and frustrating for her and that was expertly portrayed. She was a lot more at ease with the older, troubled adolescent, David (Fedor Teyml), who seemed to mirror a lot of her frustrations and her coming to terms with forces in life out of her control.
The strain infertility has on the couple's relationship culminates at a dinner scene with the family next door when their insecurities and perversions are laid bare. The neighbours resemble how society views childless couples. It is assumed that the couple actively chose not to have kids, and their apparent independence and freedom is envied. This insensitivity, although unintentional, is common in our society, and shows how misunderstood infertility is. The dinner provides a metaphor of how difficult coming out about infertility struggles can be, and when the couple finally confront each other about their feelings, tempers flare which lead to a foreshadowed fallout between the pair.
An unexpected and unfortunate event for to the family next door acts as a weld that brings the couple together again. While there is no happily ever after ending per se, the couple seem to have healed at the expense of their neighbours. The movie ends with the couple returning to a campsite where they had spent a night when they first started dating, which led to Alice falling pregnant and choosing a termination as they thought that it was too early in their relationship to start a family. As if they went full circle.
This film is important in illustrating a difficult and sensitive topic that many are not familiar with. The acting was of a very high standard amongst all cast members; however, the cinematography was here and there. The music was sparse yet did emphasise the melancholic nature of the film, with touches like the constant noise from the family next door being heard in the couple's room throughout the film, even though their arguments served as haunting reminders of the couple's psyche during their struggles. The film fell significantly short at the end, where it seemed rushed, random and wasted much of the build-up of the narrative, as if to brush their struggles aside and say: maybe they are better off than others. And while that may be the intended message of the film, I felt the film's statement was more in drawing public attention to infertility struggles, and a bigger focus on that would have served the narrative better.
'What We Wanted' is available on Netflix in German and dubbed in several languages, including English.