Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
American Beauty represents some of the theories that originated from psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud and developments made by Jacques Lacan.I will use the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to psychoanalyse the film, American Beauty (1999).The main focus of the psychoanalysis will surround the main character, Lester Burnham because he conforms to many theories surrounding the topic. For instance, American Beauty portrays a strong focus on desire which is closely linked to psychoanalytical theory.
Freud believed that human behaviour is the result of interactions among the three parts of the mind. Each of the three parts: the id, ego and superego are signified in American Beauty. I will be using Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality to analyse how Lester’s imbalanced human psyche is concentrated on in the film. Lester relates to the ego at the beginning of the film where his wife is the superego who is superior to him but this changes throughout the narrative as we see his movement towards the id.
The transformation of Lester is compatible with Freud’s proposition that desire and the unconscious go hand in hand. The fantasies that Lester begins to have correlates with the idea of the unconscious mind. Lester enjoyed the idea of his fantasies but realised that it could never become real. I will discuss the transitions in Lester’s personality and relate them to relevant examples in the essay like how the role and reinstatement of the human psyche is conveyed.
Lacan developed on Freud’s work and considered the human psyche to be in three divisions of the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. I will use Lacan’s work of the ‘ego ideal’ where the individual conforms to their surroundings (symbolic) rather than adopting their own ‘ideal ego’ (imaginary). For instance, in American Beauty, Lester’s ideal self is restrained by society and by what is deemed as moral. The influence of society on desire is signified in the film due to the sexual repression of Lester.
Lester’s repressed sexual urges appear through his fantasies of Angela because they represent his actual own true desires. Fantasies have to be unrealistic according to psychoanalytic theory and objects desired must remain absent. The idea that the fantasy is not actually what is wanted but the idea of it is signified in the film when Lester’s desire for Angela shatters as he learns of her naivety. He turns from a sexually driven character to a father-like character which further illustrates the ego ideal.
Lacan goes further than Freud by seeing more than just a transition to the id through his theory of the mirror stage. I will use this theory to portray how Lester symbolically goes through the mirror stage in American Beauty as he goes through a period of self-realisation in his adulthood. Lester adopts new personal attributes as his fantasies of Angela create an awakening for him. His new identity forms from the way he sexually objectifies Angela, his desire for her triggers his development throughout the film. The mirror stage is evident because Lester assumes power over where he was powerless before and he becomes more self-aware.
In relevance to this, I will use Lacan’s concept that desires arise from a certain lack in life. For instance, Lester’s desire for Angela in American Beauty begins as a unique fantasy to avoid his monotonous life. The lack of excitement in Lester’s life initiates his desire for a young girl. Lacan proposes the ideal ego and Lester’s is to feel young again. Angela perpetuates the youthfulness and excitement he dreams of in his own life which also coincides with Lacan’s argument that a person can be a reflection of another’s desires.
I will use the theory of symbolic castration discussed by Lacan and Freud by relating it to the emasculation of Lester. He is undermined by his wife and daughter in American Beauty. Freud argued that when a person gives something up, it is replaced by something else. For example, Freud claimed that a fetish assists in eliminating threat of castration. In American Beauty, this is evident because of the way that Lester’s metaphorical castration activates his lust for Angela.
I will relate this to Freud’s argument that libido is a main aspect behind psychoanalysis theory and a driving force for behaviour. Lester rebuilds his masculine identity and becomes more of the man he desires to be through his sexual fantasies of Angela. I will use the theory of fetishism to signify how the creation of Lester’s fantasies of Angela and the sexualisation of her represent an outlet for his repressed desires. American Beauty is a complicated film that reflects change and desire. Many dimensions of psychoanalysis are illustrated in American Beauty.