American Beauty - Appearances Can Be Deceiving
American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes in 1999, is an American film that satirically critiques the society of the time. However, it has ended up becoming a classic. So much so that we can perfectly apply the social portrait it draws to any current Western society.
Note the choice of title. It tells us what the movie is about – the ideal of North American beauty. American Beauty painstakingly illustrates the imposed mold of the “perfect family.” However, from the start, the film makes it clear that beauty is nothing more than simply appearance. It is ephemeral, superficial, and it carries dangerous consequences. It shows us a totally carnivalesque society, where each character is assigned a role that they must adapt to.
The plot takes place in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes. The focus is on the Burnham family, made up of:
- Carolyn, the mother, a woman focused on the world of appearances. She aspires to professional success.
- Lester, the father, and the main character of the film. He is apathetic, and has settled for a life he does not like and his only happy moments are when he masturbates.
- Jane, the teenage daughter. She is full of complexes, and has to face her teenage problems in a family that is completely empty of feelings.
These characters find, in one way or another, their liberation in the form of sex. Sex is about our natural side, the wild side we try to repress in society.
Another disjointed family of new neighbors then arrive. Colonel Fitts is the father, a military man who has developed strong denial as a defense mechanism. He imposes a model on himself, and he must comply and follow it to the letter, even if it entails losing or denying himself.
On the other hand, his wife is totally submissive. She barely speaks and is obsessed with cleanliness. They have a teenage son, Ricky, who is the opposite of his father. He renounces society’s standards and sees beauty where no one else does.
American Beauty shows us the consequences of a completely dehumanized and materialistic society that contrasts with our most human worries. It is critical of a society in which we play roles and put on masks constantly to try to fit the mold.
As Eugenio Trías described in his work Philosophy and Carnival, our society is a great masquerade. We don’t possess only one identity, but many.
These are masks that change over the years: son, father, grandfather … All to shape a lifestyle, an aesthetic based on appearances and artifice. This began to happen after the Second World War, when people started promoting the American way of life.
It’s interesting to see how those masks blur when sex appears on the scene, when individuals are carried away by passion. Lester, Colonel Fitts, the teenage girls Jane and Angela (Jane’s friend), all succumb to desire, and reveal their true wishes and insecurities.
“…in order to be successful, one must project an image of success, at all times”.
-Buddy Kane, American Beauty-
Beauty is the key to the film, and roses are a metaphor for it. Since Antiquity, they are considered a symbol of perfection. But the rose is a treacherous flower. It is delicate in appearance and has fragile petals, which contrasts with the hardness of its stem and thorns. “Perfect American families” are the same.
At the beginning of the film, we see Carolyn cutting roses in her garden and neighbors praising how beautiful they are. By cutting these roses and putting them in a vase, we turn them into something artificial. Into something that’s sole purpose is contemplation. But, with time, they wither away, lose their petals and, therefore, their beauty. Roses appear throughout the film, and they give clues about what happens in the character’s lives.
“I don’t think there’s anything worse than being ordinary…”
-Angela Hayes, American Beauty-
The character, Angela, Jane’s teenage friend, is linked to a rose. She is the American beauty prototype: blonde, beautiful, thin, leader of her group of cheerleaders … and exerts a strong influence on Jane.
She likes to feel wanted and admired by men, and would do anything to achieve her dream of being a model. However, she is full of insecurities. Her life is based on aesthetics, and the image she projects of herself has little relation to her reality.
The rose petals also have sexual connotations. Therefore, it is not surprising that they are linked to Angela’s character. The petals fall slowly, letting us glimpse how ephemeral beauty is.
This is a film that seeks the viewer’s reaction. It is looking for discomfort and reflection. It wants us to look critically at our daily lives. It immerses us in the characters’ minds, their deepest desires, the relationships they have with each other and how they relate to the world in their different stages of life. Canonical beauty contrasts with Ricky’s character’s idea of beauty, which, curiously, is furthest from the established definition.
It is interesting to highlight the role that music plays and how it involves us in the atmosphere, how the characters select a certain music depending on the moment they are in. Especially in the car scenes. In the car, there are no masks, the characters can be themselves. The solitude frees them and the power they feel driving is accompanied by the music they chose. It is the moment to unmask, to be oneself.
American Beauty presents the harsh consequences of our contemporary society, and how fear is the main culprit that causes us to keep up appearances and not accept ourselves as we are. We deny, we hide and put on many masks to adapt and survive in the established mold. Undoubtedly, appearances can be deceiving.
“Never underestimate the power of denial”.
-Ricky Fitts, American Beauty–