Envisioning the (W)hole World “Behind Things” in Sam Mendes’s American Beauty



Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999) explicitly affirms the importance of upholding the prohibition against incest. In his DVD commentary on the film, Mendes himself sees his work as the tale of a man, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who becomes “a father again” by forgoing the chance to act on his fantasy—to sleep with his daughter’s teenage friend, Angela (Mena Suvari).1 The film understands this endorsement of the injunction against incest broadly and in terms we might characterize as Lacanian. Indeed, Lester’s gesture summons Lacan’s well-known account of the subject in/of language. The restoration of Lester as a father—his choice to sustain the paternal function—comes with his acceptance of Symbolic law or castration, with his own acknowledgment of the exigencies of being (dis)placed in language. That is to say, Lester’s refusal to sleep with Angela coincides with a recognition that the intimations of Otherness that compel and position the film’s celebrated videographer, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), pertain to him as well. Ricky looks not to the superficial image of beauty that has driven Lester and that appears to yield a transparent access to self and other, but rather to remnants (even waste) that often point to an unseen world, a whole “life behind things.”


Paternal Function Incest Taboo Film Viewer Symbolic Mediation Radical Otherness 
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© Vincent J. Hausmann 2011

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