The rose has long been used as an archetype in literature and films. This flower is the manifestation of absolute beauty for artist in different genres and cultures but also symbolizes love and romance presented in the most primitive way of human nature. In the film “American Beauty”, the symbol of rose is weaved in throughout the movie and is used not only to manifest the aspects of beauty but also reveals each unique character and their role in society.
The rose is first seen in the beginning of the film with the accompaniment of Lester’s narration about his life and family relations. Alan Ball employs the roses in the beginning scene as a symbol for power and success which she tries to pursuit in her career and family. We see Carolyn taking care of the roses in the garden and with the absence of Lester while she is socializing with the neighbors; the audience realizes that she is the dominant figure in the family. The fact that the neighbor is praising the beauty of the roses indicates that Carolyn is the iconic figure in the Burnham family and that she is recognized as an important and successful person in society. The success Carolyn has in her life, portrayed by the beauty of the roses, further highlights Lester’s lack of masculinity in both society and family, establishing the two contrasting characters right at the beginning of the film.
From the early scenes, the audience is confronted with the roses as an agent of Carolyn’s as if her influence extends through the roses. As the story develops, the roses are also associated with Lester but in a different way than Carolyn. This time Alan Ball utilizes the roses as a symbol for sexual lust that Lester has towards Angela. Lester first sees Angela at a high school basketball game and immediately falls in lust with her. He fantasizes that she performs a sexy striptease in the arena just for him. Instead of the breasts, dozens of rose pedals fly from Angela’s chest when she opened her shirt. Lester felt overwhelmed by them and was shocked back into reality.
Furthermore, the camera only focuses on the petals, while the thorns are associated with Carolyn in the opening scene. Thus, the petals underscore the beauty and purity of Angela which attracts Lester. The effects of roses on Lester are similar in the next few fantasy-scenes, emphasizing his forbidden attraction to Angela, the relationship that Lester cannot have due to societal expectations plus the presence of Carolyn and Jane.
Towards the end of the film, roses are used together with other symbols to manifest the individual American Dream and the beauty in life. For Lester, the American Beauty comes from the arrival of Angela. This is manifested in the last fantasy-scene where Lester pulls out a single petal from his mouth after kissing Angela. The fact that the petal comes from his body implicates that he has found the meaning of his life which finalizes the process of rebirth. He has gone beyond the materialistic world and sets the pursuit of happiness as his new goal. Since then the rose is always present whenever he is enjoying his life including the last scene where he stares at the family photo before he gets shot. The red color of his blood matches with the red rose, indicating that he attained his vision of American Beauty despite his dead.
Roses are also used to manifest the American Dream of Carolyn. Alan Ball focuses more on the red color of the rose since Carolyn is oriented to the materialistic society. Here, the rose serves as a physical attribute manifesting her superficial vision of the American Dream. Before she kills Lester, she is dressed all in a matching red, with red lipstick and red fingernails, staring at the red house door. The excessive use of the color red emphasizes her focus on outside beauty. In her vision the rose serves only as a decoration of her house while the red is a cover for her extrinsic beauty. Her dependence to materialistic possessions is further elucidated through her breakdown after Lester’s dead when she grabs the clothes of him in the closet. The audience gets the impression that in the past she defined Lester through the clothes and never escaped the role of a realist.
In this film the rose is given a diverse appearance. No matter if it’s the flower itself or the color red, Alan Ball effectively incorporated this motif into character and theme establishment. Every person in the story has their different versions of beauty but the rose is able to represent all the different aspects of desire and thus become the major element of the whole story.