American beauty - so what's really beautiful, a rose or a package?

"American Beauty" by Sam Mendes is one of the cult films not only of the 90s, but of world cinema in general. It has a kind of its own, such a visceral and nostalgic atmosphere, such thoughtful and intriguing music, such important and bitter conclusions. I think you can watch this film over and over again, and constantly find something important and new in it. It is like a good red wine, it only gets better over the years.

And it's all thanks to the storytelling techniques that the director, producer and screenwriter use. Let's find out exactly what tropes and twists they use, but I must warn you:
There are a lot of spoilers!
The film tells us about Lester Burnham - or rather, he tells us about himself: the narrative begins with his voice-over explaining that he, the narrator himself, has been murdered. And this technique of having the narration come from a character who has already been killed simultaneously adds a mystical element and instantly includes us in what is happening. It also starts Alice Siebold's book "Dead Bones", for example, and also the TV series Desperate Housewives, which doesn't even hide the fact that it's a reference to American Beauty. In the script, Lester was supposed to descend from heaven to bed, but thankfully they decided to do without it.

So, Lester Burnham is an ordinary middle manager with low self-esteem and a mid-life crisis. He lives in an ordinary American suburb with his daughter Jane and wife Carolyn, who don't think he's in the right - and he thinks they are. There is no contact with his daughter, intimacy with his wife has long been lost, and every day is similar to the previous one.
The main action and the two storylines that will develop in parallel are triggered by two events. Firstly, a new neighbour moves in next door - teenager Ricky Fitz and his family, and secondly, Lester goes to support his daughter at a cheerleading performance, falls in love with her school friend Angela and finds a new meaning to his life. Jane, meanwhile, begins an affair with Ricky that helps her rethink the whole teenage world around her.

It is very remarkable that in this film there are no "passable" characters, who serve just for "scenery" - all the characters are important and play a significant role in the plot, especially since there are not so many of them. Also, they're all very similar - Lester to Ricky, Carolyn to Angela, but more on that later. The film does a great job of juggling a lot of different characters, almost none of whom are what they seem at the beginning.

The main symbol of the film is the red rose

This is what we see in Lester's fantasies when he thinks of Angela. Red roses are grown by Carolyn, and a bouquet of red roses appears on the table in many scenes, including the shot of Lester's murder.
What does a red rose mean?

A rose in our world is a rather banal flower, a gift to a woman expressing love. And so it is here - a rose means beauty, but rather banal beauty, materialistic and even a bit vulgar. The rose is Angela's symbol. And red is not only love, it's also blood and death. And life. Thus, the rose also emphasises the fragility of our world, especially in the moments when the background music is playing.
This is a story about the desire to "pick the flower" of Lolita. It is a post-modern remake of Nabokov's novel. Lester Burnham is an anagram to "Humbert learns", the name of the protagonist of the novel Lolita. Lolita herself was named Dolores Hayes, and the film makers give Angela the same surname and the name of an unearthly being, an angel. Angela Hayes, a dream, a wish. A lot of scenes with red roses flying out of the girl's chest are filmed deliberately in such a way that their unreality is clear to us. By the way, the scene where Lester sees Angela for the first time and as if he is alone in the school hall is referenced by the TV series "13 Reasons Why". And even the colour red is present there.
Is Angela really that good?
Yes, she is indeed very attractive and hot, she excites men, she knows it and enjoys using her weapon. Angela is very astute. But she's a pretty standard late 90s girl - dreams of being a model, thinks only what glitters is beautiful. More than anything, she's afraid of being mediocre. But pay attention to her room - here we see the pluralisation, her entire wall is covered with pictures of models she wants to be like. This wall echoes Rick's room - but there the shelves are filled with discs that probably have rare and visually significant films on them, i.e. "real" beauty.
Rick and Angela are two characters who have their own concept of beauty, but it is diametrically opposed. Angela considers herself beautiful and poses in the window, while Rick is much more attracted to the mystery in Jane. Rick tells Angela in direct text that she is boring and ordinary, which makes the girl very upset. And at the end of Angela's arc, we see that all her self-confidence and seductiveness is actually contrived, because when it comes to actually having sex with Lester, she turns out to be a virgin. She even wears a white shirt in this scene to emphasise her innocence.

And Lester, who has spent the whole film imagining the moment of intimacy with Angela and idealising their sex, does not take advantage of the girl's defencelessness. Although for him she has not become worse or more boring - she is still the same beautiful red rose, because Lester is not Rick, he is much less sophisticated in matters of visuals and beauty, and has only just begun his journey into her knowledge. It's a pity that the journey was so short, because Lester is a beautiful person - look at his smile in the last scene and listen to his last monologue. He has transformed from a grumpy, disgruntled grump into a bright man who loves life so much.

Rick is the most well-adjusted character in the film

Not only has he learned how to survive in his dysfunctional family of an abuser dad and a Vietnam War veteran with PTSD and a crazy mum, but he's also found a way to make money for the things that matter to him. Rick walks around with a video camera all the time and at first seems like a bit of a creep maniac to us.
Although when Jane asks him to stop filming, he immediately obeys her. Rick's name also has a special meaning, in English it sounds like Rick Fits, and the translation is "Rick fits in", although, of course, he is very special, and he doesn't fit in anywhere.
But he doesn't need or care about that. What he cares about is his creativity and his beauty. He has a very clear vision of the world, which he helps Jane with, among other things. After all, she says she doesn't like the way she looks, and at the beginning of the film she seeks information about breast augmentation - not because she has small breasts, but because one breast is bigger than the other. Of course, with parents like Jane's, it's not hard to sink to the bottom of the self-esteem scale - her mum is a real bitch - but Rick's parents are just as complicated.

His father constantly beating him, the Nazi crockery collector and the clearly "not here" mother. She was scripted to have many more lines, but the director decided that her silence would be more eloquent. She has clearly lost touch with reality - apologising for the mess in the perfectly cleaned room. Advising her son, who says he's leaving the house, to wear a mackintosh. Not bad advice, sure, but still kind of weird.
Both Rick's father and Angela are the epitome of the "I am what I hate" trope. The Colonel is a true homophobe, but we eventually see where things turn. Angela is constantly talking about sex and mocking virgins, but in the end it turns out that she herself has never been intimate with a guy.

Angela is Carolyn in 20 years

After all, Lester says that Carolyn wasn't always like this, she was carefree and joyful, and now their first intimate scene in years is interrupted by the phrase that "you'll spill beer on the sofa". This moment, Carolyn's arch and the film itself reminds us that if we are materialistic, beauty will be gone, dissolved into a joyless routine.

The point of the film

The highlight of the film is when Rick shows Jane his most beautiful video of the package. After all, a bag is trash that no one would ever notice, unlike a pompous red rose. But the main message of the film is "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder", and Rick was able to see the package in a way that made it truly beautiful. That's not to say that the rose (or Angela) is any less beautiful - it's beautiful to Lester because he sees the beauty of this life like this. Different, but beautiful to himself. Both Rick and Lester reason about the beauty that is so abundant in life that it makes our hearts burst.
And, of course, the most touching moment is when all the characters gather at the house where the gunshot rang out and find Lester dead, with red blood spilling all around him, and he's talking about beauty. We see each character, and how in their own way they live this tragedy - how Rick turned his head and saw his beauty, how Carolyn screamed. By the way, the moment with the shirts is a reference to "The Great Gatsby". And those black-and-white shots of little Jane and young Carolyn - they're like echoes of the old photos that were always flickering on the bedside tables at the beginning of the film. And that music, so poignant and so lingering.

What other techniques and tropes of storytelling do we see in this film:

The title of the film "American Beauty" is a play on words, it is both "American Beauty" and a hybrid variety of red rose. This fact is revealed many times in the film and was also used in its advertising.

Bookends (similar beginning and end) - the film begins and ends with a look from above at the outskirts of the city.

Visually very often we see the rule of three (3 main subjects in the frame), centring on the main character, and also graininess when Rick is on camera.
Ironic Echo (two echoing events at the beginning and end):

- Lester and Rick's musings on beauty.

- at the beginning and end of the film, Carolyn says affirmations.

- Lester's response to his wife's lover at a party and a fast food restaurant.

Madonna and "whore" complex - in the beginning Jane is presented to us as a virgin, and Angela as a sophisticated tigress. At the end it turns out to be the other way round.
Both instances of topless women's nudity emphasise their vulnerability rather than their sexuality.

Red herring (hint given in advance) - throughout the film, we are led to believe that either Ricky or Carolyn kills Lester, which helps keep the suspense going.

Symbols - in the first shot of Lester at work, he is reflected in a computer monitor, and the on-screen text looks like prison bars. And in the car on the windscreen, first the reflection of trees and then the reflection of a stone jungle.

Big Bad (the big evil causing all the heroes the most trouble, like Voldemort or Thanos) is Colonel Fitz, Rick's father.
Musical Characterisation:

- Lester is a fan of Pink Floyd, he is surprised that Ricky has a copy of the Dark Side of the Moon album. He also sings "American Woman" by The Guess Who while stoned in his car.

- Carolyn sings a version of Bobby Darin's song "Don't Rain on My Parade" in the car. She's obviously a big Darin fan, as the soundtrack to the dinner table confrontation she's implied to have chosen includes his recordings of "Call Me Irresponsible" and "Where Love Has Gone".
Cardboard Box of Unemployment: After Lester manages to blackmail his boss into quitting his boring job, he leaves the office carrying a box of his belongings on his shoulder and waving his fist triumphantly. Remember, in all American films, after being fired, the hero makes a promenade with the box. For example, Drew Barrymore in the film Duplex.

Cameo: A producer plays a bartender at the establishment where Ricky works.

Angela is a blonde cheerleader, which is a very popular cliché.

The references are to "Ordinary People" during dinner, and Lester's running legs are Marathon Man.

The film ends with a voice-over belonging to Kevin Spacey against a black screen, just like in one of his previous films, Suspicious Faces. A small poster of that film hangs precisely in Lester's office.
A hurricane of euphemisms - When Carolyn catches Lester masturbating.

When Angela has to sleep with Lester and Rick and Jane are lying on the bed in her room, their black clothes are a great contrast to Angela's white.

Angela and Jane is the familiar high school film dichotomy of pretty and ugly girlfriend, the former choosing to look better against her.

And here's what could have been in the film but didn't happen

(or conversely, which moments were not planned moves but improvisations by the actors as they went along):

- Alan Ball admitted that the idea for the film was born when he was sitting in the square in front of the World Trade Centre and saw a paper bag floating in the air. It was this moment that inspired him to start writing the script.

- Kevin Spacey was only supposed to drop the plate in the dinner scene, but he didn't get the reaction he wanted, so after a few takes he threw the plate at the wall with all his might. The actresses' terrified reactions were real.
- The scene in which Lester attacks Carolyn's legs with a remote-controlled machine was also not recorded, and Annette Bening's surprise and annoyance is the real reaction.

- He also improvised everything Lester does in the car while high, including singing the song "American Woman". In other words, much of what Lester got was not from the writer, but from the actor, who also saw his character in his own way and gave him eloquent moments.

- In the scene where Carolyn tells Lester she's ready to go, while he's smoking pot with Ricky outside the restaurant, Spacey can't contain his laughter, and Wes Bentley can also be seen laughing, as it wasn't scripted.

- The "Look Closer" tagline was inspired by something a make-up artist hung on Lester's cubicle at work. Sam Mendes only noticed it during editing and decided it would make a good marketing slogan.
- In the original script, Jane and Ricky were supposed to see a car crash on the motorway, but in order to cut costs, this scene was replaced with Ricky's line about shooting a dead homeless woman. The part where Jane decides to walk home with Ricky rather than drive with Angela was added to compensate for this.

- In the original script, Lester loved country music, much to Jane and Carolyn's annoyance.

- An earlier version of the script called for Colonel Fitz to tell a backstory in which, while serving in Vietnam, a fellow soldier is killed before his eyes.

- Screenwriter Alan Ball based Lester's story on aspects of his own life. Lester's re-examination of his life parallels the feelings Ball had in his mid-thirties. Like Lester, he had discarded his hobbies to work in a job he hated for people he didn't respect. The scenes in Ricky's house reflect Ball's own childhood experiences. According to Ball, the combination of comedy and drama in the script was not intentional, but subconsciously derived from his own views on life.
This is a very poignant film about the importance of learning to see the beauty around us and not forgetting it. It is a sad yet beautiful film that every film lover should definitely watch.

Do you like "American Beauty"?