American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes in 1999, is an American film that critiques, with a certain satirical air, the society of the time. However, it has ended up becoming a classic, so that we can perfectly apply the social portrait that draws to any current Western society.
It is worth noting the choice of the title, which already anticipates what we are going to witness: the ideal of North American beauty. American Beauty painstakingly draws the established canon, the imposed mold of the “perfect family.” However, from the first minutes we realize that all this beauty is nothing more than a simple appearance, ephemeral, superficial and that carries dangerous consequences. We are facing a totally carnivalesque society, where each character is assigned a role and must adapt to it.
The ideal family model
The action takes place in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes, the focus is on the Burnham family consisting of:
- Carolyn, the mother, a woman focused on the world of appearances that aspires to professional success.
- Lester, the father, main character of the film, is an apathetic being who has settled for a life he does not like and his only moment of happiness is masturbation.
- Jane, the teenage daughter full of complexes who will have to face the problems of her age in a family completely empty of feelings.
Finally, these characters will find, in one way or another, their liberation from sex; Sex supposes that natural, not artificial and wild side that we try to repress in society.
Soon, a new neighbors, another unstructured family will arrive in the neighborhood. At the head stands out Colonel Fitts, military and father of a family, who has developed a strong denial as a defense mechanism: he has imposed a model and must comply with it and follow it to the letter, even if this entails the loss or denial of his own being.
On the other hand, his wife is a totally submissive character, barely speaking and obsessed with cleanliness. They have a teenage son, Ricky, completely opposed to his father: he goes out of society’s standards and sees beauty where no one else finds her.
Society, a great masked dance
American Beauty shows us the consequences of a completely dehumanized and materialistic society that contrasts with the most intimate concerns of being. Look for a critical look at our reality, where we play roles, we put on masks constantly to try to fit into the mold.
As Eugenio Trías described in his work Philosophy and Carnival, our society is a great masquerade, where we do not possess only one identity, but a multiplicity of them.
Masks that are changing over the years: son, father, grandfather … All this, to shape a lifestyle, an aesthetic based on appearances and artifice, which began to be drawn after the Second World War with the promotion of the American way of life.
It is interesting to see how those masks go blurring when sex appears on the scene, when individuals allow themselves to be led by passions. From Lester to Colonel Fitts, passing through the teenage girls Jane and Angela (Jane’s friend), they succumb to the desire and reveal their true longings and insecurities.
“To succeed, you have to project an image of success”
-Buddy Kane, American Beauty-
Beauty is the key to the film and the roses a metaphor for it. Since Antiquity, they are considered a symbol of perfection. But the rose is a treacherous flower, delicate in appearance and fragile because of its petals, which contrasts with the hardness of its stem and thorns. In the same way that American “perfect families” are only in appearance.
At the beginning of the film, we see Carolyn cutting the roses in her garden and how the neighbors praise the beauty of them. By cutting these roses and putting them in a vase, we turn them into something artificial, something whose sole purpose is contemplation; although, with time, they will wither away, losing their petals and, therefore, their beauty. Roses are a constant, will give clues to what happens with the lives of the characters.
“There is nothing worse in life than being ordinary”
-Angela Hayes, American Beauty-
The character of Angela, Jane’s teenage friend, is linked to the rose. It responds to the prototype of American beauty: blonde, beautiful, thin, leader of her group of cheerleaders … and exerts a strong influence on Jane.
To feel wanted and admired by men, I would do anything to achieve her dream of being a model. However, it is full of insecurities, its life is based on aesthetics, and the image it projects of itself has little relation to its reality.
The rose petals have sexual connotations, therefore, it is not surprising that they are linked to the character of Angela, in addition, those petals fall slowly, letting glimpse the ephemeral beauty.
The price of perfection
In short, this is a film that seeks a reaction by the viewer, seeks discomfort and reflection; he wants a critical look at our daily life. It immerses us in the minds of the characters, their deepest desires, the relationships they have with each other and how they relate to the world in the different stages of life. The conception of canonical beauty contrasts with the idea of beauty that the character of Ricky has, which, curiously, is the one who lives the most outside the established.
It is interesting to note the role that music plays and how it involves us in that atmosphere, how the characters select a certain music depending on the moment in which they are. We see it, especially, in the scenes that happen in cars. In the car, there are no masks, they can be themselves, loneliness frees them and the power provided by driving is accompanied by the music chosen for the occasion, it is the moment of unmasking, of being oneself.
American Beauty presents the harsh consequences of our contemporary society, how fear is the main culprit that we try to keep up appearances and not accept ourselves as we are. We deny it, we hide it and put on many masks to adapt and survive in the established mold. Undoubtedly, appearances deceive.
“Never underestimate the power of denial”
-Ricky Fitts, American Beauty-