American Beauty – 1999

american beautyCommon knowledge designates the title of this film as a reference to an American species of rose. A rose which, even while looking as healthy as can be, could be rotten under the soil. While this metaphor certainly applies, it somewhat discounts the true depth and beauty of the title, and indeed the whole film.

A rose is the ultimate bait and switch in symbolic terms. While it is used widely as a symbol of love and devotion, the truth of a rose is that it has thorns. Even something that is so widely considered beautiful is not without its disadvantages. The rose petals signal the arrival of the twisted and threatening as they surround Angela Hayes. The name Hayes reinforces Mena Suvari’s resemblance to Sue Lyon, Kubricks’ Lolita. The name sounds identical to that of the nymphet in Nabokov’s novel. Lester’s (Kevin Spacey) desire for Angela is hampered, even in fantasy, by the intrusion of the rose petals. Foreshadowing his inability to literally ‘deflower’ the girl when given the opportunity.

Throughout the film we see the ultimate suburban ideal of white picket fences with bright red roses. The manicured lawns and bright blue sky are so like the opening shot of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet that it would be criminal not to reference the themes. The dark underbelly of suburbia is a hangover of ‘The American Dream’. The “own the home/car/wife/life of tomorrow” attitude of the 70’s had tarnished beyond recognition in the wake of the cultural scars of Vietnam. As a result the characters seem increasingly alienated in their pointless, manicured world. To make matters worse American Beauty is set at a time of great instability. The American economy was ready to topple off of the fairy wing it was built on due to Y2K. A phenomenon which, if it is anything, is a symbol of humanity’s inherent ability to destroy itself. The two families shown trying to raise children in this broken society display symptoms of this alienation. Both Lester’s family and the family next door, Ricky and his estranged parents, conduct their lives in almost complete silence. The communal spaces in both family homes are antiseptic and symmetrical. The scenes which make use of these spaces are choreographed, reminiscent of any good Wes Anderson sequence. The relationships between the family members are as superficial and artificial as the space between them.

There is a tension between the beautiful and the rotten in American Beauty. It seems like the two concepts are battling each other for survival. While the family unit is falling apart the individuals are becoming more and more free. Lester leaves his dead-end job which visually imprisons him in number matrices and a cubicle maze. After he leaves this prison his life improves drastically. This vivacity comes directly from his desire for the fetishized cheerleader, Angela. With nearly no interference from Angela herself, Lester becomes envigorated by his desire. He takes possession of her image as an inspiration. It’s exactly what Ricky (Wes Bentley) is doing with his video camera. His obsessive filming of the events around him and particularly of Jane (Thora Birch) demonstrate an intense desire to possess beauty. The home video style scenes which are shot through Ricky’s camera were often shot by Mendes himself. It seems to be an allegory for the whole film. As if American Beauty was made just by Mendes following around the suburban people of America and seeing what narrative came out of their little lives.

The title American Beauty makes us expect to see beauty. Instead we are presented with a cautionary tale against seeking and hoarding beauty. Ricky’s monologue about a simple plastic bag serves as a warning for the audience. His way of life is bizarre and alienating, an obsessive search for beauty. Yet there’s an element of misogyny here, while the men are allowed to be free and create their own rules the women thrive purely on the male gaze. This is the lifeblood of Angela who thrives on being observed by passers-by and ogled by men of all ages. Jane seems to discover her potential sexuality and let go of her hang-ups as a result of Ricky’s camcorder. Carolyn (Annette Bening), Lester’s unloved wife, becomes more joyful as a result of her affair, even regaining the gaze of her husband. As if that were all a woman can aspire to gain.

Lester, by the end of the film, is completely free to find beauty and love in everything he sees. As such he cannot live, white middle class America throws every possible obstacle at him to beat him back into submission. In the end he becomes a martyr for The American Dream. There are at least two characters who are ready to kill him for stepping outside of the accepted lines. Of course, the one who truly does kill him is the fallen hero of the American army (Chris Cooper). A patriot who has to save not only his own face, but the respectable face of America, despite knowing the flaws all too well. Ironically, Lester, the obsessive, near paedophilic anti-hero leaves us with a monologue about the wonder of life. The lines far more befit Ricky, who seems to finally break away from hoarding life in order to live it. Leaving Lester to speak to the viewer is distasteful, it glorifies his actions and his agenda, which have not been at all admirable. His name is an anagram of “Humbert Learns” but this man appears to have not learnt at all. The only reason he stops short with Angela is because he finds out that she is no longer a prize. Her virginity makes her less valuable to him, since in the narrative of American Beauty a woman’s worth is measured by male approval. Perhaps that is the American condition Mendes wishes to criticise. Unfortunately, if it is, it fails at the first hurdle of satire, it is indistinguishable from a film praising this system.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

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