In AMERICAN BEAUTY, Sam Mendes’s Oscar-winning tale about the dark side of American suburbia, lust is presented as a perverse and literally deadly sin. In lusting after his daughter’s high school friend Angela (Mena Suvari), middle-aged Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) embodies inappropriate sexual desire. When the film starts with Lester explaining how, by the end of the film, he will be dead, we are invited to consider his faults as the story progresses and decide whether or not his death is deserving.
A red rose is used as a motif that symbolises his lustful desires for Angela. This is encapsulated in a fantasy scene in which Angela lies in a bath tub, her body covered with rose petals, before an engrossed Lester. It is through this symbol of his lustful urges that Lester’s demise is revealed; roses appear again at the end of the film, moments before his forewarned death. This recurring motif suggests that Lester’s lust is his downfall and his urges will overtake him. In spite of his desire ultimately not being realised, the immorality of his misplaced lust confirms his fall from grace.
I’m not obsessing. I’m just curious
Beyond Lester, however, lust is manifested in multiple ways, which questions whether it is only ever sexual. Introverted teenager Ricky’s (Wes Bentley) obsession with Lester’s daughter Jane (Thora Birch) present a different kind of lust, one that starts with intrigue and voyeurism and ends with love. He is ostracised for his odd behaviour and treated like a freak by his father and peers. His father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), is disgusted by his own longing. He finds homosexuality explicitly abhorrent and physically assaults his son when he misreads an encounter between Ricky and Lester as sexual. It is Colonel Fitts’s own desire for men and the feelings that provokes within him that fuels his rage. Lester’s wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) lusts after success. She sees successful realtor Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) as an ideal. She wants after the life and status he can give her and it triggers an emotional breakdown. These multiple expressions of lust present AMERICAN BEAUTY as a social commentary in trying to question and complicate the deadly sin.
The representation of lust is clearly one that is not as straightforward as purely sexual desire. Sam Mendes looks at how a strongly felt emotion can become deadly, but also how it manipulates and conceives unnatural ideas. Carolyn’s lust is something of an awakening from the sexless marriage with Lester. She is reinvigorated by her desire and finds the inspiration to take a stand. Colonel Fitts, on the other hand, is debilitated by his lust. He is driven to violence and must quash his feelings through a display of hyper masculinity. For his son, lust signals curiosity, it is the questions the feeling poses and the relationship it builds that seemingly defines who he wants to be. Yet, it is Lester’s demise that raises the real questions as the other characters, in spite of their sins, do not receive the same retribution. Bored, uninspired and lifeless, Lester’s lust makes his life worth living. Even when he realises the inappropriateness of his desire, it is too late; his fate had been sealed.