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Reel Women: ‘Celeste & Jesse Forever’

Sony Pictures Classics

Celeste and Jesse are perfect together; they speak in their own language, they know each other’s ticks, and they’re the best of friends. There’s only one problem: they aren’t together anymore. In the middle of a divorce, Celeste and Jesse are driving their friends crazy, still attached at the hip and unable to let this relationship go.

Written by and starring Rashida Jones, and co-starring Andy Samberg, ‘Celeste & Jesse Forever‘ is a sad but often sweet examination of denial at the end of a long-term relationship.

Celeste is in denial. Jesse is in denial. Jesse is living in a guest house behind the home he shared with Celeste during their marriage. Best friends and lovers since college, the pair have grown up together and experienced becoming adults together — well, Celeste has. Jesse is regressive and aimless; an artist with little motivation who spends his days surfing rather than being productive, while Celeste works as a trend forecaster for a marketing firm. The pair of them still operate as if they’re together, going to dinners and on day dates with their friends, but sleeping in separate beds.

Celeste is more confident in their dissolution than Jesse, but her put-togetherness is little more than a mask, obscuring her denial of the truth. The more she pretends that she’s okay and bottles her feelings, the less self-assured she becomes. When Jesse starts dating again, Celeste starts to realize that maybe she’s made a mistake — perhaps his immaturity isn’t the problem. Maybe she wasn’t appreciative enough. Maybe she wasn’t as empathetic as she could have been.

‘Celeste & Jesse Forever’ doesn’t quite cut as deeply to the heart of the matter as it could, often relying heavily on director Lee Toland Krieger’s (‘The Vicious Kind’) moody direction to provide emotional translation. We watch as Celeste goes on dates, posturing herself as someone who’s ready to move on with her life, when clearly this isn’t the case. When she meets someone who is right for her (Chris Messina), she stumbles and does some regressing of her own, hilariously covering herself in layers of sweaters, smoking marijuana with a burnout friend, and drinking herself into embarrassing oblivion at social functions.

The sweaters, the thick cloud of smoke from the pot, the drinking — all of it a physical manifestation of the internal mask she uses to hide her feelings. Celeste isn’t just in denial, she’s actively burying and ignoring her feelings, fearful to embrace them and learn from the experience. She’s terrified that if she recognizes the truth — that this may have also been her fault — that she’ll become a horrible person, and that’s something she just can’t abide. She’s been so certain that Jesse is to blame because she’s mature, she has a job, and she knows what she wants in life — or so she thinks.

Celeste is an interesting portrait of a woman who runs counter to the more messy portrayals of women we’ve seen in film over the last year. We’ve been cheering on the disastrous and wrong-headed actions of women in ‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Young Adult,’ and most recently, ‘Bachelorette,’ and while those women are certainly empathetic in just how unsympathetic their actions are, Celeste takes a more muted approach in unraveling. The aforementioned films provided a heightened reality where those characters’ flaws were kicked up to 11, but Celeste gives us a woman who feels like home. We’ve lived in her. We’ve inhabited her problems and her sweaters and her heartache, and we root for her to pick up that bottle and drink because she’s been holding it together for too damn long.

Sometimes you need to make a bigger mess in order to recognize the smaller mess you’ve been ignoring. You start cleaning up the big mess and see that little stain in the corner that’s gone unnoticed for too long, and it’s going to take some serious examination to get to the bottom of it.

While the film undoubtedly ends on a precious note, the moments directly preceding the conclusion are its most poignant. Celeste gives a toast at the wedding of two mutual friends, and through that she pours her heart out about acceptance, understanding, and recognizing and being grateful for the good you’ve found in another person. Sometimes we spend so much time deconstructing and picking at the flaws of others that we become blind to our own. This is easy in a long-term relationship, when two people inhabit a microcosm populated only by themselves, their in-jokes, memories, and the specificity of a touch that becomes its own language.

Perhaps the saddest element is understanding how to let go of a relationship while keeping the memories, and learning how to be friends without complication.  ’Celeste & Jesse Forever’ illuminates the idea that in order to embrace our past, we have to stop living in it. It’s a simple and obvious idea, but it’s not a particularly easy one.

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