Perhaps the most pleasing thing about Private Life is how lived-in every inch of it feels. Rachel and Richard’s apartment doesn’t ask for an ounce of attention because it looks like so many you’ve stepped into. Christos Voudouris’ cinematography and the understated production design use the details of the art on the walls, the little potted plants used to open up the space and the bed sheets crumpled in the corner to breathe air into the environment. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti’s turns add to the genuine warmth too, and although they are going through an incredibly frustrating fertility struggle that is burning them out, they’re so pleasant to be around. Every space in director Tamara Jenkins’ slow burner is occupied with a purpose and a lack of clichés.
Jenkins both wrote and directed her conception comedy, allowing a natural growth and understanding between the actions of the characters and how they’re furnished visually. It’s fair to say almost nobody in this story has their shit together, and all their problems differ wildly due to each coupling and individual being in different stages of their lives. I’m hesitant to say issues were “tackled”, that seems too strong a word, it’s more like they were examined from afar, then with a sigh the examiner concluded that a third act quick fix for all of life’s hardships isn’t true to what human beings experience. So the characters are left to their own devices, the script isn’t shuffling them like a deck of cards and placing them in order to change gears; they’re scattered and move with the wind. And it’s this great empathy for everyone involved—from Molly Shannon as a high-strung mother to Kayli Carter’s lost Sadie—that ties weights to all corners of the narrative. A film about a couple trying to conceive isn’t new territory, but Jenkins manages to get wonderful performances out of her cast with solid execution. However, it’s probable that a slightly higher level of exploration of the dynamics and a more satisfying finish for Sadie would have made for a home run.
I always think it’s quite brave when a film is centered around an obstacle that you don’t get to see be overcome or surrendered to. For Richard and Rachel, their marital problems have been such an ongoing turmoil that it doesn’t feel like one anymore; it’s their normal. And they’re stuck in a repetitive process that sets them back constantly, but Private Life never gives up on them—the hopes and the disappointments rise and dissipate like tides brushing against the sand. It’s a rare achievement to fully realise the simplicity of a situation such as this cinematically, and to do a good enough job of preserving the realistic nuances that it doesn’t leave viewers wanting more. Private Life isn’t something I imagine people rushing to see again, and it’s not an experience that fully locks you in, but its charm lies in between the lines.
In a world where we are treated to massively scoped fantasies and action blockbusters where the sky is the limit, it’s nice to receive a gentle reminder of how the small things can reverberate.
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