American Beauty is an American drama film directed by Sam Mendes. The film has won numerous awards. In American Beauty, Sam Mendes widely utilizes mise-en-scene in order to convey his message. The director displays the narrator and other characters not only through dialogues, but also through different means such as colors, symbolic images, sounds, lighting, and the characters’ appearances. It is important to pay attention to every detail in American Beauty as all the details represent additional meaning to the story.
The opening sequence of American Beauty is a vivid example of how directors can use form as an artistic tool in order to communicate certain ideas and messages. The opening sequences of the film introduce the main character Lester Burnham, his daily life, and family. All details of the mise-en-scene display that Lester is trapped in a routine. The director uses symmetry in the aerial shot of the neighborhood with identical houses and trees on each side. The same angle of view of Lester’s neighborhood will appear at the end of the film, however, moving pull-out-like instead of pull-in. Thus, it reflects Lester’s change of mind.
The Burnhams’ street is right in the middle of the frame. In their yard, rose bushes are identical around the entire perimeter. In the opening sequences of American Beauty, the symmetry and monotony externalizes Lester’s boredom and the feeling of being trapped. The soundtrack reflects these feelings through the use of marimbas and percussion.
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To introduce Lester Burnham, Sam Mendes used an extreme high camera angle from which his body looks dead-like as he is lying in bed, thus, making the scene more impressive and symbolic. Then the camera displays Burnham in the shower trapped within the glass walls with the use of a framed shot, and as the camera tracks towards Lester, the dramatic impression of the trap develops. The shot is framed again when Lester stands at the window, thus, isolated from his family and neighborhood. His wife Caroline (in a suit, not casual clothes) is trimming roses outside and talking to their neighbor shaking her clippers, which looks as if she was non-verbally threatening him. This shot strengthens Lester’s feeling of being trapped by his family and his house as he is standing at the window. The neighbor’s dog that is barking from behind and trying to escape represents Lester. Like the dog, the main character does not seem to be a significant member of his family; and, like a child or a pet, Lester drags himself into the backseat of their family car. At the beginning of the mise-en-scene, Lester is dressed in ordinary dark pajamas, then he gets naked only while taking a shower, and then he is dressed again in an ordinary grey suit.
Lester works in a large office with grey walls where he is trapped as well. He is shown from a high angle once again in a conversation with his boss who, on the contrary, is shown from a low angle that makes him superior. As Lester’s boss describes him as “distant and isolated,” the main character is shot as if he is far away from his superior. A close framing on Lester’s face displays that he is powerless.
The roses serve as a metaphor throughout the film, especially for the Burnhams who seem to be a perfect family on the outside (like a flower); however, there is a hidden truth about their real relationships full of hate (the roses’ thorns). However, later roses begin to symbolize passion as Lester fantasizes about Angela, a friend of his daughter. Roses in American Beauty are also suggestive of the theme of beauty itself. Unlike her father, Jane can see real beauty even in a plastic bag that is floating in the wind. Their neighbor Ricky finds beauty in Lester’s blood at the end of the film. Thus, here the reappearance of the red color becomes ironic.
It is important to pay attention to every detail in American Beauty as the narrator and the other characters are shown not only through dialogues, but also through different details such as colors, symbolic images, sounds, lighting, and the appearance of the characters among others. These details represent additional meaning to the story and help to understand the characters better.
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