School: Montgomery High School
Favorite Band: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Favorite T.V. Shows: “Family Guy”, “24”, “The Good Guys”
This article first appeared Nov. 30, 2010
Director: Sam Mendes
“American Beauty” is one of my all time favorite films because it has an intriguing plot supported by a pervading mood, thought-provoking message, and spectacular misé en scenes. I especially appreciate Sam Mendes’s use of the color red as a central motif throughout the film to connote danger, blood and violence; suggest sex and lust; and signal a transformation or change of heart in his characters.
Throughout the movie, the American Beauty rose petals appear frequently in scenes of a sexual nature. Whenever Lester Burnham fantasizes about Angela Hayes, his lust for her is exemplified by the red rose petals. Angela, in turn, wears deep red lipstick and brightly-colored clothing to accent her sexuality. Buddy Kane’s red real estate signs arouse Caroline, too, because they epitomize success and Caroline’s sexual desire for a liaison with that success. Finally, Colonel Frank Fitts’ sexuality is literally brought to light when he kisses Lester under a red lamp with Lester’s bright red car in the background. Through the color red, director Sam Mendes indicates that passions are rising in each of his characters.
In addition to expressing love and passion, the presence of red often signifies bloodshed and approaching violence. The red door of the Burnham’s home signals Caroline Burnham’s intent to murder her husband Lester. And in the climax, the red roses on the kitchen table foreshadow the violence to come.
Interestingly, whereas red connotes love, passion, violence and blood, the absence of red indicates a social and emotional disconnect between characters in the film. Throughout “American Beauty” Sam Mendes contrasts the color red with other monochromatic set designs to emphasize isolation in the colorless scenes. The Fitts’ house is devoid of color. All of the walls are either a white or cream color, and Barbara Fitts appears almost as a ghost. The black and white surroundings of this home emphasize the disassociation between members of the family and rest of society. Similarly, Ricky’s video images are primarily black and white, with subdued tones, like the gray scale on a computer printer; however, as he begins to connect with Jane, his images begin to show glimpses of color.
As the movie progresses, the color red signifies a source of life for the characters and instigates a transformation among them. As Lester Burnham remarks after first seeing Angela Hayes, “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I’m just now waking up.” Red acts as a catalyst to awaken the insular people in the film, adding passion and love to their lives. In the opening scene of “American Beauty,” Lester Burnham narrates “My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.” Therefore, he and Caroline are originally dressed in cool desaturated colors. Both progress to more vibrant clothing as their lives awaken. Caroline becomes increasingly more powerful and dominant as she strips off her pale yellow suit to reveal a red camisole—displaying passion underneath a staid exterior while cleaning a house she’s trying to sell.
Ultimately, Sam Mendes uses red to encourage us to find beauty in our own lives. As Lester Burnham narrates in the end of “American Beauty,” “I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”
His words of wisdom, like the red symbolism, resonate with his audience and force us to contemplate—and hopefully find—the passion and beauty in our own lives. I encourage all those who haven’t seen “American Beauty” to watch it. And for those of you who have seen it, watch it again with red in mind!
Thanks, Mark. Here is a trailer for the movie.