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Existentialism in American Beauty

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The iconic poster featuring one of the roses that serve as a motif image throughout the film.

The iconic poster featuring one of the roses that serve as a motif image throughout the film.

Welcome to a suburban nightmare

Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Carolyn Burnham (Annette Benning), to all outside eyes, have the perfect life. They live in a nice house with nice things and have nice family meals together with their nice teenage daughter (Thora Birch.) However, each character is having an internal crisis and eventually breaks free from the "ideal" suburban image that they possess.

Lester, our protagonist, has the biggest breakdown (or breakthrough), when he suddenly becomes infatuated with his daughter's best friend. He blackmails his boss, quits his job in favor of a fast food gig, smokes pot, works out, and stands up to his overbearing wife and bratty daughter.

Carolyn, who puts a lot more stock in the importance of appearing successful and happy, vents her frustrations in more hidden ways. She has an affair with her business competitor, learns how to fire a handgun, and indulges in occasional crying or screaming jags. Carolyn often repeats mantras to herself including "In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times" and "I refuse to be a victim."

Jane rebels against the norms imposed upon her by society and her family by pursuing a romantic relationship with the artistic drug dealer, Ricky Fitz (Wes Bentley), who lives next door.

Information about the titular rose

The motif of roses throughout the film

The film's title, while possessing multiple implications, is a reference to a specific type of rose that is loved because of its fullness and richness in color. However, this flower, while beautiful above ground, is prone to mildew, rust, and black spot. This is symbolic of our characters' situation: while their lives look beautiful and perfect, there is a growing dissatisfaction that plagues them.

The titular roses appear more than a dozen times in the film, usually in situations where the family is trying to achieve what they view as perfection. For instance, the first time we see the roses, Carolyn is out pruning them and putting on a show of normalcy for the neighbors. Lester's voice-over points out that she has matched her gardening clogs with the handle on her pruning shears. The roses reflect Carolyn's desperate urge to achieve, or at least portray, what she regards as the ideal. Even when Carolyn is not around the roses, she frequently dresses in red and wears red lipstick to remind the viewer that she is desperately pursuing an ideal life.

With Jane, the roses appear less frequently and less obviously. When the audience is first introduced to her, she is wearing a sweater decorated with little roses. She is looking up information about breast augmentation, because she wishes to have a body that is considered ideal. The roses on her sweater, albeit very subtle, help to establish Jane's ties to the toxic image of perfection.

The roses appear in many scenes where Lester and Carolyn argue

Roses are visible in three places in this screenshot.

Roses are visible in three places in this screenshot.

The presence versus absence of roses

There are two particular instances where, in one scene, the roses appear, but are absent in the same situation that occurs later in the film. In one scene, the camera zooms in on the family photos that are on display in the foyer. These pictures are heavily posed and have been taken in a studio. Because the point of these planned, orchestrated photos is to showcase how happy and well-kept the family is, the roses appear. In contrast, the roses fail to appear next to a picture that is in the kitchen. The picture is one that has been taken spontaneously while the three family members are at a carnival. Its subjects are in the moment and are genuinely happy rather than pretending to be, so the roses are absent from the scene.

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The first time we see the family eating dinner together, the roses are the centerpiece of the table. This is before Lester's midlife "crisis," so he is still playing the part of the dutiful breadwinner. However, the next time we see the family at dinner, the roses are not there. Because Lester has refused to continue to partake in the farce, the family is no longer a picture of what is perceived as perfection.

Lester eats dinner with his family

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), before his breakdown, is constantly belittled by his wife and daughter.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), before his breakdown, is constantly belittled by his wife and daughter.

Angela and roses

To post-crisis Lester, roses have a bit of a different meaning. They also represent what he perceives as perfection but in the sexual mindset. One of the most talked about and parodied scenes in the movie is where Lester first encounters Angela performing a dance routine during half time at a high school basketball game. His fantasy takes over, and he is alone in the gym watching Angela perform a seductive dance. She opens her jacket and flower petals fly out.

From then on out. whenever Lester thinks about Angela, red roses are a part of the fantasy indicating his perception that Angela is beautifully and sexually perfect. The audience, of course, realizes that Angela is not perfect; she has low self-esteem and values herself only based on her looks and sexual appeal. The theme of perceived perfection versus real imperfection holds true.

The second dinner scene (contains some strong language)

Isolation and the failure to connect with others

One of the most important pillars of existentialism is the idea that we are fundamentally alone despite the attempts we may or may not make to connect with others. The characters in the film all suffer from the inability to form a meaningful bond with people in their lives. This is most easily demonstrated by the several instances where one character begins to convey an idea, feeling, or desire but cannot complete it. Notable examples include when Lester phones Angela but cannot find the words, the stunted conversations between Ricky and his father, and the instance where Colonel Fitz confronts Lester in the garage but cannot vocalize when he wants and needs.

The idea of being unable to connect with other humans also extends to Lester's sex life. He and his wife do not partake in intercourse throughout the movie, and, when the two do appear to be having an intimate moment, it is quickly destroyed before anything substantial can happen. The intimacy is shattered when Carolyn becomes preoccupied with the state of her expensive couch rather than experiencing an emotional moment with her husband. Again, here is the theme of perception of perfection versus actual imperfection.

An overrated film?

Angela Hayes, in Lester's fantasy, relaxes in a bath of rose petals

Angela (Mena Suvari) gives Lester a look that is reminiscent of the nymphet in Kubrick's Lolita (1962.) Angela's surname, Hayes, is an homage to Lolita Haze.

Angela (Mena Suvari) gives Lester a look that is reminiscent of the nymphet in Kubrick's Lolita (1962.) Angela's surname, Hayes, is an homage to Lolita Haze.

The futility of existence

The foundation that existentialism is built upon states that life has no inherent meaning, that our existence comes before our essence, and that we manufacture our own purpose in life by attributing value to difference pieces of it. Jane's boyfriend is obsessed with capturing his experiences on film. His most beautiful moment, in his opinion, is the image of a plastic bag blowing around with leaves. The beauty comes from the lack of meaning in any of it. The plastic bag has no motive, no reason for doing what it's doing or for existing at all. Ricky sees that and latches onto it, subtly showing the audience how absurd being really is.

Part of what makes the end of the film so sad and yet so oddly satisfying is that it seems to negate the whole movie. When Angela asks Lester how he's doing, he seems surprised when he says that "He's great." After he has finally reached a point in his life where he feels some sort of pleasure, he is shot and killed. Because we have spent so much time watching Lester struggle and finally succeed, his death is a forceful reminder of just how pointless our lives are, from an existential standpoint. This ending is a powerful finish to a delightfully unsettling film.


Ethan Digby-New on January 15, 2015:

I haven't yet watched American Beauty, but I have heard many great things about it, and not many bad ones. I'm glad that I'm hearing another aspect to it. This Hub was very honest and interesting!

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