“The beauty that addresses itself to the eyes is only the spell of the moment; the eye of the body is not always that of the soul.” George Sand hit the nail right on the head when he said this in 1872. Appearance versus reality has been a central theme in many American creative works including the film American Beauty.
American Beauty is a film that delves into your typical, middle-class suburban American home and slowly uncovers all of the abnormalities that lie within. The family is portrayed as normal but as the films, tag line suggests “look closer” then it is possible to fully understand the implications that take place in this seemingly happy home.
The film is masterfully directed by the famous theater director Sam Mendes and encompasses a great number of cinematic techniques that appear fresh and exciting. Critics have mentioned many of these techniques. However, they failed to notice the clever use of color used throughout the film–especially the color red.
Sam Mendes effectively uses the color red; as a central motif to accentuate mood and theme, to contrast families, and to reveal characters’ personalities and feelings. In American culture, red is a color with various meanings and images. The color red is the essence of life; it is the color of blood. It can insinuate energy, vitality, passion, anger, power, excitement, and sacrifice. It is a grounding color.
Red can stand for warmth, danger, love, sex, death, rage, lust, and beauty. Red is the color used for the women’s clothing, the cars, the doors and also it is the color of Lester’s blood splattered across the white table at the end of the movie.
Red is the central motif of the film. Sam Mendes incorporated many of these meaning of red within the film American Beauty, Not only did Sam Mendes implant a motif of red, he also incorporated a motif of the red rose. Roses in American culture are the ultimate symbol of love, life and death. Flowers are a large part of the American culture. They have come to symbolize compassion, caring and love.
The beauty of roses is superseded with danger, for they have thorns that can prick. Roses epitomize beauty; perhaps that is why they chose the title American Beauty. The title American Beauty is a hodgepodge of symbolism; it encompasses a variety of meanings. For the viewer it can stand for the American beauty rose a rare and antique climbing rose much like the roses in the Burnham garden. It can also represent the American ideal of a woman such as Angela, the ideal American beauty with her long flowing blonde hair, her porcelain complexion, and her ruby red lips and bright blue eyes. Another adaptation of the title is the beauty of a perfect American home much like the Burnham’s home appears to be.
But all have flaws, the rose has thorns to prick, Angela has her fear of being ordinary and the Burnham’s home, well it too is cursed with the reality that they are a dysfunctional family. Red roses become not only a motif in the film; they come to represent symbols. They are prevalent in almost every scene. They are in the garden; almost every room in the house has a bouquet of brightly colored roses in a vase.
They are the centerpieces to the dining room table. This table becomes a motif in the film as well, the family has its nightly dinner ritual and over the course of the movie, we see a delineation of the family at this table. Rose petals are the symbol of sex as well, they are seen surrounding Angela for Lester, they burst out of her blouse; they pop out of his mouth after he fantasizes of kissing her and they fall from the ceiling onto his face when he pictures her above his bed.
The front door to the house becomes a motif as well, with constant references from neighbors about the house with the red door. As if the door is a gateway to the oddities lurking inside the house.
Within the house, Mendes restricted the colors to a monochromatic blue-gray scheme to emphasize the isolation between the Burnham’s. Lester escapes from this cold and lonely house by creating a domain for himself, it is framed in golden browns, and this separates him even further from the blue-gray existence he had been living. To carry further the theme that Burnham’s happy home is just a front for what lies deep inside.
Sam Mendes juxtaposes the Burnham’s house with the neighbor’s homes. The bright, almost artificial colors of Burnham’s house are quite a contrast against the Fitt’s which is very bland and regimented; inside it is almost Amish looking. It is completely void of plant life and aesthetics typically associated with homes. They have limited furniture and décor, and the furniture that is present is plain, straight lined dark and wooden.
The lighting is dim and the prevalent color throughout the home is white or cream. The Fritt’s family is one of the distances. Mendes makes a point by surrounding them in bland, melancholy colors and spacing them at length from one another. The family is clad in black and white throughout most of the film to externalize the loneliness and isolation between themselves and society.
The other neighbors present appear at first to be the most abnormal of the bunch. They are Jim and Jim, two very successful men living together as “partners.” They are always bright and cheery dressed in primary colors and portrayed as happy and full of life. The irony is that they are the most normal characters in the entire film. Color is used not only to show juxtapositions in neighborhoods but to bring out the characters as well. Sam Mendes captures the essence of each character with color.
At first, we see Lester in cool desaturated colors to suggest a lack of energy and a drained life. As the film continues and Lester goes through a rebirth we see him develop a brighter outlook on life and the color of his garments go through a rebirth as well, at first he turns to yellow, then green and eventually he adopts red. He wears a red tank top, acquires a red car, and pursues a job wearing a red and white uniform.
Mendes uses this color transformation to show that Lester has remembered the things he wanted. He suddenly realizes what is lacking in his life and red clothing gives him a sense of power and control over his life. What started this change was when he first saw Angela. She represents the ultimate sign of American beauty; she is adorned with red throughout the movie. She emanates sex and passion.
Throughout the film she wears fire engine red lipstick, she wears brightly colored clothing and she is seen to Lester as surrounded by red rose petals, he has visions of her soaking in a bath tub of rose petals. Red is the dominant color of nail polish and lipstick for all the central females in the film including Caroline.
Caroline Burnham goes through a transformation as well she outwardly appears isolated and controlling but underneath she yearns for passion and power. Mendes ingeniously shows this in the beginning of the film when Caroline undresses to clean a house and underneath her drab yellow suit is a crimson red camisole.
While she cleans the dark and shadowy house she is backlit with brightly colored walls. She has a private “breakdown” and covers her sobbing face with those powerful, sexy red nails to mask her uncharacteristic behavior. Carolyn attempts to fill her loneliness up with having the right things. The right car, the right house, and even the right garden, but she doesn’t see the big picture.
She does transform, much like Lester into a more secure and grounded person. This is most apparent in the last sequence of the film when she is wearing a very sexy red velvet dress. She has become assertive and is ready to finally connect with Lester, even though she is too late. Early on it becomes obvious that she is obsessed with her image of success, and this is why she envies Buddy Kane so fervently.
Buddy Kane the “king of real estate” is her competitor and the ideal figure of success, he has a bright red sign mounted in the yards of his homes to advertise himself. The sign represents his power and hints at his sexual appeal to Caroline. Jane and Ricky are important too, they are the more grounded of the characters, they are both presented in neutral colors throughout most of the film.
They represent balance and neutrality in the movie. Ricky’s parents are not so neutral; they are dressed in pale, washed-out colors to show their lack of vitality. Especially Mrs. Fritt’s, she plays a minor role in the movie and that is precisely the point Sam Mendes makes. She is seen as a minor role in the family. She is usually wearing a long white nightgown and appears almost as a ghost in the picture, to her family, she barely exists. American Beauty is a fantastic film that encourages viewers to “look closer.”
Sam Mendes directed a film about American Beauty and the foolish things that Americans do to keep up with appearances. He is urging us to find beauty in our lives and to forget about having the perfect garden and home. He effectively uses the color red; as a central motif to accentuate mood and theme, to contrast families, and to reveal characters’ personalities and feelings. “Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”–Oscar Wilde.
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