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American Beauty

 This was written as an English Exam, while I was in Germany. We had to analyse the way the director had portrayed the relationship between Angela and Lester, and finally answer "Why did Lester and Angela both feel better that they didn't have sex?"

If you have an alternative explanation, email me, stewy6@hotmail.com

 
    In the film American Beauty, the catalyst to protagonist-Lester’s change is unequivocally Angela. In this scene, the pair ‘meet’ for the first time, and the extent of Lester’s infatuation is graphically portrayed by providing a view into his mind. This is the first of many fantasies involving the off-limits Angela, and clearly shows the extent to Lester’s desperation extends, to escape his ‘little, meaningless, life’.

    It is clear to the viewer from the outset that something is going to happen in this scene. Although the brief epilogue at the beginning asserts the sinister nature of the film, there clearly is no defined plotline up to this point. The setting is also proleptic of the forth-coming events. Until this point, Lester has essentially been trapped in a number of physical and metaphorical cells. The first time we see him at his workplace, his solemn face is reflected in a screen full of jail-like ‘bars’. The sport hall is a refreshing release for him symbolically, after being ‘trapped’ in his cramped workplace, his house behind the window, and in the claustrophobia of his car with Carol. It is for these reasons that Lester’s mind wanders . The convenient centre stage position of Angela adds to the effectiveness of the scene. We are transported slowly from the static noise of the basketball game to the slightly more sinister ‘interest’ that Lester takes in Angela. Suddenly however, any hint of normality is blown away and we plunge into the twisted recesses of Lester’s mind. This change immediately entrances the viewer, just as it does to Lester.

    Once we are ‘inside’ Lester’s fantasy, the film employs a number of clever cinematic devices in order to keep our interest in this bizarre event. The spotlight on Angela is the most obvious of these techniques, and emphasizes the nature of the encounter by alluding to the seediness of a strip club. The camera angles become ‘in your face’, quite a change from the typical cinematography of the film. The slow but nevertheless powerful zooming together with the total reliance on still-camera work (without any Steady-cam ) create an interesting cinematic effect. The movement of the camera up and down Angela illustrates the way Lester’s eyes are lustily coveting her body. The rare – and it would be prudent to mention ‘brave’ – usage of multi-cuts ( we saw Angela’s zipper be opened four or five times) work stunningly in this instance, reminding the viewer that he is seeing a daydream and not a string of real events.

    The reactions of the two characters are tantamount to the impact of the scene. Lester’s infatuation is clearly shown by his stare , and he is utterly entranced by what he ‘thinks’ he is seeing. By the start of his fantasy, he has forgotten all the taboo that society places on cross-age relationships and can do nothing but lust for Angela. Angela’s reaction is somewhat more complex. While we know that this part of the scene is nothing more than a figment of Lester’s imagination, Angela’s devilish , almost sadistic smile is too reminiscent of that of later scenes to be merely a directorial fault. Angela is unequivocally playing up to Lester, if by nothing more than her facial expressions.

    The spontaneity of Lester’s infatuation, although seemingly answered above, must nevertheless be discussed. The quality Lester sees in Angela is ironically the quality that he is sick of in himself – What Buddy King (Carolyn’s Affair) describes as the ability to ‘project the image of success at all times’. Angela is ‘the all-American’ girl, she is the perfect projection of the ‘American Beauty’. This is symbolized incidentally in Lester’s mind by the usage of lush red rose petals, from a type of rose called ‘The American Beauty’. Janie does not try to project this image, and neither does Ricky, but Angela does, and this is what attracts Lester.

    The relationship is left essentially unresolved until a lot later in the film. Angela clearly knows the power she has over Lester and enjoys exerting it. The point at which they culminate their relationship, however, is the point at which they are most desperate. Angela has been abandoned by Jane, who does not need her anymore, and has been labelled what she feared most: ‘ordinary’. Lester knows that Carolyn is sleeping with another man and doesn’t care, and has nothing left in his life to lose. It is for this reason that although Angela had power over Lester, they come together as equals at this point. Lester’s reassurance to her that she is beautiful is gentle and much needed, and although the culmination of their relationship is unquestionably wrong, only the most narrow-minded of viewers cannot see that some of the wanton lust has actually been replaced by affection .

The illusion of equality is destroyed, however, when Lester learns that Angela is a virgin. She is no longer the perfect ‘American Beauty’, but instead another person who is desperately trying to hide secrets: A person whom Lester can identify with. Lester starts to ‘understand’ from this point what Ricky has known for the whole film. Indeed, by the time he is shot he has ‘realised’ everything – and the revelation involving Angela reminds him of his role as a father. Once he places the jumper around Angela, we suddenly realise how small she is in comparison to him. We begin to realise what Lester has and what Ricky knew – The true meaning of beauty. The chat the couple has after their encounter is more beneficial than sex would have been, and they are both better people because of it.

    The forbidden relationship between Angela and Lester, whilst not the main plot of American Beauty, is critical to the understanding of the two main themes. Lester’s changes as a person are at first provoked by his lust for Angela, but ultimately this lust helps him to understand himself, and his contentedness at his revelation just before he is shot highlights his change. Angela, the ‘American Beauty’ if finally revealed , and Lester and the audience both realise the true meaning of beauty: Proving to us all that we really should ‘look closer’.

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