You could be mistaken for thinking that Private Life has come from the mind of the formidable Jill Soloway. The film, a Netflix original which has its premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, focusses on a white, middle class and middle-aged couple who invite a younger girl into their lives. What follows is a dissection of their own relationship, highlighted by the enigmatic, artistic young woman who has added a new dynamic to their marriage. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight and a prominent story-line in Transparent both deal with this exact premise.
From the outset then, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life already feels quite familiar. There’s also no shortage of films about middle class white couples in crisis, particularly set against the backdrop of New York. Jenkins film hones in on the subject of fertility and depicts Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), a couple in their 40s attempting to conceive a child. Coincidentally, Kathryn Hahn also stars in both the aforementioned Afternoon Delight and Transparent.
After trying varying types of fertility treatment and an unsuccessful adoption-turned-scam, the couple are left trying to reevaluate their options. Cue Sadie (Kayli Carter), the step-niece of Richard. She’s an adrift writing student, desperate to make her own way in the big city. At the same time, she’s got a fractious relationship with her own mother (Molly Shannon), which becomes all the more complicated once Richard and Rachel ask Sadie to donate an egg to their cause.
This film deals in the minutiae of fertility treatment - a lot of its scenes are built around overcrowded clinic waiting rooms, the dry observations of the anaesthetist and the general uncomfortable nature of having a doctor peering into one’s vagina. The film opens on a shot of Hahn from behind in what could, at first, be perceived to be the start of a sex scene. This idea is quickly shattered as Richard jabs an injection of hormones into her backside - if anyone was under any illusion that IVF is romantic, they aren’t now.
This is the crux of Private Life. It maintains a few laughs throughout sure, but the process of baby-making is a complicated, scientific and wholly uncomfortable one. The language used by Richard and Rachel refers to the procedures in their medical sense (“we’ve tried IUI, not IVF”) and makes the whole process feel more medicalised than perhaps society perceives it to be. The sanitation, the cold operating room lights in addition to Rachel and Richard’s inability to discuss the emotional aspects of what they are going through, all adds up to clear issues within their marriage.
Hahn frequently lends herself to this type of character - an accomplished woman who is unsettled by the one thing she can’t/doesn’t have. Both Hahn and Giamatti have wonderful chemistry as a couple who love each other through all of the griping, moaning and general torment at their current situation. Carter's Sadie completes the trio, and the three work well together onscreen - each of them struggling with their own demons and aspirations. Supporting characters like Denis O'Hare's creepy gyno-doctor Dordick (I would not want to be artificially inseminated by him) and Molly Shannon as Sadie's despairing menopausal mother add a rich tapestry to the film's background.
The narrative relies heavily on the audience caring deeply about the individual characters desires and wishes, making it feel like a cousin of Nicole Holofcener’s body of work. Yet for or all of Private Life’s interesting set pieces and Hahn and Giamatti’s onscreen chemistry, its characters are not interesting or likeable enough to sustain the entire running time. There are moments which indicate that there may be some genuine character development, yet Richard and Rachel stick closely to their allotted tropes and never manage to change at all.
Perhaps this is what Jenkins intended - that Rachel and Richard are stuck in this cyclical situation, never to learn from their mistakes or move on. The ending certainly implies this, particularly the cafeteria setting. However, Jenkins leads us to believe that Richard and Rachel are learning about themselves and their marriage throughout the film, and when they end up back where they started, it feels unsatisfying.
In part due to their inability to change, partly because of their personalities, I also found both of them incredibly unlikeable. The constant pseudo-intellectual name-drops of various playwrights, authors and books felt unnatural, as did the constant discussions about gentrification and young people moving into their area. Richard and Rachel are incredibly bougie and completely self-involved - particularly when it comes to the care of Sadie. They don’t seem at all fazed at the potential conflict of interest, nor do they appreciate that Sadie may not be in the best place mentally to consent to the donation. They are selfish at best, irresponsible at worst.
Obviously, a film doesn’t need to have likeable characters in order to be good - that is a given. Here, so much of the narrative depends on an certain amount of identification with Rachel and Richard that if you aren’t aligned with their worldview, or cannot get on-board with their choices, the film becomes rather frustrating.
Private Life though flawed is a very watchable, solid feature - especially for those fans of Holofcener or Noah Baumbach - punctuated with genuine moments of joy, heartache and humour.
Private Life is available to view on Netflix now.