Of the making of babies, there is no end, except for the parents who cannot get started at all. Like the servants of yesteryear, infertile couples are the watchers at the feast of middle-class family life, attending the festivities without getting a seat at the table or a place in posterity. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, Private Life, a Netflix film with a limited cinema release, is a sad and subtle comedy of the modern manners of conception. Which is to say, Private Life is about an expensive medico-ethical tragedy in the making, and a film very much worth seeking out on any size of screen, because its implications go to the core of us, as people and as a society.
Hipsters Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel Grimes (Kathryn Hahn) are beginning to lose their hipness — he is 47, she is 41 — but are struggling to find the happy ending of parenthood. The experimental theatre company that brought them together has folded, and its Lower East Side site has become a Citibank. Richard is now the Pickle Guy, selling artisanal gherkins at farmers’ markets in the outer circle of Brooklyn. Rachel, with her first novel written, is ready to have it all, and combine career and parenthood. That means an increasingly unwilling surrender to the fertility business, which combines the methods of industrial agriculture with the billing cycle of predatory lending.
Richard and Rachel have already been burned by a would-be surrogate, a 17 year-old from Little Rock, Arkansas who, they discovered, was only in it for the attention. They have already burned their savings on hormone shots and egg harvests by private doctors who are only in it for the money, and the dizzying ego boost of making life where there was none. Now they discover that Richard, who has one testicle to start with, is producing semen but not sperm. As the doctor explains, if Richard was serving Mountain Dew at a bar, he would be squirting plenty of seltzer, but no syrup.
But they shall go to the ball. Richard and Rachel borrow $10,000 from his brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) for a course of Testicular Sperm Extraction and Intro-Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection that leaves Rachel broken-hearted, Richard with an ice-pack on his lonely nut, and a small and expensive batch of Richard’s batter in a freezer at the clinic. But you can’t bake a cake without eggs.
Searching for a surrogate through an online agency, they are confronted with the economic pressures that are driving people like them out of the Lower East Side, and driving college students to sell their eggs. An Ivy League ‘donor’ has a waitlist for her ova. The biracial woman with a BA in Journalism and Cinema Studies does not. Nor does the waitress at their local cafe, whose appearance on their screen reminds them that they are buying the genetic material of fellow human beings. ‘My God, it’s like The Handmaid’s Tale,’ says Rachel, continuing anyway because a child is priceless, and a her life without one already seems pointless.
This, Tamara Jenkins shows us, is what happened to the people who used to be the ‘creative class’. Unable to survive in the city of gentrification, unable to ensure their survival by procreation, and unable to afford the technical solutions offered by private medicine, they are being squeezed out of the economic and human race. And as the film subtly shows, because this is private medicine, fertility treatment is overwhelmingly a white people’s problem. Apart from a non-speaking member of Richard’s extended family, there are no black faces in Private Life. The only biracial ones are on brochures for the ultimate outsourcing of labour, surrogacy.
A future appears in the form of Richard’s step-niece Sadie, the step-daughter of Richard’s brother Charlie, and the natural daughter of Charlie’s wife Cynthia (Molly Shannon). Sadie is struggling to finish her BA at Bard, and has no money. She has ambitions as a writer, and has always idealised Richard and Rachel. They seduce her by taking her in at their apartment. Sadie accepts, and turns down their offer of money. She is doing it for love — she loves them, but she also loves the idea of living in the city as a writer, which takes money. And her friends have already sold and egg or two to cover student loans. The ethical link between the generations is broken. Consumed by thwarted passions, medical possibility and economic necessity, the characters fail to consider the ethical boundary.
Sadie’s stepfather Charlie accepts her decision. He is a periodontist, and spends his working days grafting dead people’s bones into living people’s gums. Her mother Cynthia is not enthused by the prospect of becoming a grandmother and an aunt on the same day. Cynthia, like Rachel, has discovered that women cannot have it all. Cynthia abandoned work for motherhood, Rachel deferred procreation for creativity, and neither are happy in midlife.
The title of Private Life is ironic, and so is Jenkins’s use of a cast of comic actors. No one has a private life now — not informationally, and not biologically, either, because we choose to reduce the biological to the informational, and to see the fundamental human act, making a baby, as an epiphenomenon of market choices and consumer forces. But the ethical, as Sadie’s joke confession shows, returns to haunt us. Sadie, recalling her psych class, tells Richard and Rachel the difference between ‘suppression’ and ‘repression’: suppression is when you choose to ignore it, repression is when you ignore it without consciously admitting that you’re ignoring it.
Richard and Rachel, desperate to have children, have been ethically rewired by their experiences of the fertility business. Exploiting Sadie’s fertility and psychological immaturity, they suppress their muted consciences, but they cannot repress the implications of what they’re doing. By the time they hear Sadie’s confession that she has always thought of them as her ‘art-mom’ and ‘art-dad’, and of herself as their ‘art-daughter’, Richard is already jamming hormone shots into Sadie’s left butt cheek while Rachel encourages her. The ethics of this are, as Oedipus might say, all Greek to them.
Following their desires into the marketplace, Richard and Rachel arrive at the next worse thing to ‘art-incest’, in which medical art gives life to monsters of imagination. There is no more a right to parenthood than there is a right to happiness. Young women sell their eggs and rent their wombs because they need money. They are trading their genetic material, and risking their mental and physical health, for short-term financial gain. Their older, wealthier customers are buying posterity, the creation of a life. As Private Life shows, the balance of power in this exchange is grossly off-kilter.
Anthropologists have placed the incest taboo as the cornerstone of social life. The business of baby-making may involve a revision of that taboo, at least among those who can afford to buy into the business. The union of Sadie’s eggs and Richard’s sperm produces six fertilised ova. A single laboratory worker is more procreative than Genghis Khan, who forcibly imprinted his genetic material all over Eurasia.
Anonymous donors are selected for socially desirable traits. This selection is multiplying the numbers of half-siblings who don’t know they are half-siblings. Those half-siblings, being the children of those who could afford to purchase their creation, will be concentrated by hereditary wealth and other advantages in the upper strata of the class system. They will then be concentrated again in elite colleges, where they will go to parties, drink too much, and inadvertently…
That’s how it goes when you have children. There’s always something new to worry about.