What happens to a woman when her wanting for a child drags her hopelessly? Ravage, sometimes. We know that the inability for a woman to have a child can have heartbreaking effects. The promise of science to provide one when biology cannot, as well as the transformations in social, family and economic configurations that can turn adoption into a commercial exchange — as in the case of surrogates— have a special impact on the real of motherhood.
Tamara Jenkins builds a narrative concerning this feminine suffering in her film Private Life (2018) halfway between irony, criticism and despair, although with flashes of love, through characters lost in the discontent of our civilization. If, as we read in the presentation text of the PIPOL congress by Dominique Holvoet, «what Lacanian psychoanalysis reveals is that desire comes to dress up a particular want to enjoy [vouloir de jouir] of the child », this film shows how it is no longer the child that is enjoyed, but the demand for it, and the ravage that it causes. Indeed, according to the lives that it portrays, long gone are the times when the phallic function operated like a knot. Then, the desire for a child could be realized or displaced, or both, a matter that, on occasions, did not spare from the suffering of the symptom either. In Private Life the demand for a child reaches the level of caricature, mainly when it addresses how desire has been short-circuited by the intervention of assisted reproduction techniques. The child, then, is a product of the fertilization factories and the film shamelessly exhibits the most private of the being that speaks, its desires and fantasies.
Private Life is also the story of a marriage and its disagreements. The narration of the successive attempts, all unsuccessful, to have a child is a good story about how contemporary civilization can dilute desire into pure demand. At no point in the film do we learn how husband and wife came to desire a child. Rachel, the protagonist, embodies a destructive and ravaging demand. Richard, her husband, obediently accompanies her without finding any other way to calm her despair, other than by putting his impotence at her service.
The whole film is traversed by a special sensitivity when it comes to showing what happens when the demand for a child is directed to an Other — both diverse and dispersed — who believes that they have a way of answering and fulfilling this demand, but that — as it could not be otherwise — fails every time in doing so. The Other of the demand is incarnated in the medical professionals and assisted fertilization services, adoption social services, and behold, other women, potential donors of children and ovocytes. The husband, on his side, in a pathetic representation of the «old combatant», seems to have lost the fight without ever having entered it . If ever a desire for a child had existed between them, this has been forgotten by the disappointments of the path in search for it. As Richard blurts out to Rachel in a discouraged tone, “We don’t even make love anymore.”
The tireless and devastating search triggers the fall, one by one, of each of the semblants that tie jouissance into the desire for a child: the father, the phallus, the filiation. Richard shows enormous difficulties in being a father in the real, the symbolic and the imaginary. The desire between husband and wife is conspicuous by its absence. The filiation is called into question when the couple decides to turn to a young woman — daughter of his stepbrother — to be the egg donor. In a delicate scene the confusion about the motherhood of the child that both women imagine is revealed.
However, love and desire appear, although perhaps not where expected. Certainly, they emerge throughout the film in the relationship of the married couple with the young donor while also, in a special way, between the two women who are engaging their bodies for motherhood. Thus, if there is a donation, it is not that of a piece of the body, but rather the gift that the couple offers the young woman towards the end of the film, a gift of recognition of the subject that she is and her desires. And the thing is, loving is giving what one doesn’t have.
Tamara Jenkins’ story shows the divergence, undoubtedly structural, but profound in current ways of life, between the jouissance that can be tied to love and the jouissance of the One-all-alone. Private Life is the portrait of a civilization that is arranged from the mass production of objects – promise for a satisfaction that is missing, which leaves the speaking being exposed to the real: life, sex, death.
Translation: Polina Agapaki
Proof: Francisco Gomes
Photography: ©Pascale Simonet – https://www.pascale-simonet.be/
 Jacques-Alain Miller, La naturaleza de los semblantes, Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2005. p. 145: “la adquisición del niño como don del hombre, después de lo cual a veces el hombre solo vale como antiguo combatiente”.