California Films: Safe
Safe opens with a point-of-view drive up a San Fernando Valley road at dusk, the street lamps looming like ritualistic torches, unwelcoming mansions on either side forming a gauntlet of initiation into some sort of emotional or even societal decline. As the car rolls into a gated community, composer Ed Tomney's score is pregnant with foreboding.
That pitch-perfectly disturbing tone never lets up. I've been trying to convince friends for years that Todd Haynes' 1995 film is one of the great American films, but watching it can be a difficult, perplexing experience. Few, however, would deny that in its slow, methodical building of tension and the creeping terror it instills, the movie rivals a powerhouse horror vehicle like Rosemary's Baby. In Safe, however, the monster is so omnipresent, it's barely identifiable. In fact, after this moody masterpiece has wormed its way into your head for a couple of hours, you're not quite sure exactly what it is that's planted within you -- the kind of anxiety and fear normally evoked by clinging nightmares.
What makes the film so frightening? A synopsis would seem to provide few clues. Carol White (Julianne Moore), a San Fernando Valley housewife in a well-heeled, cloistered community circa 1987, spends her days decorating and errand-hopping until she develops an intolerable sensitivity to airborne toxic substances and household chemicals. Her condition worsens, and after several attacks, a seizure that sends her to the hospital, and the failure of her doctor to find any physical cause, she stumbles onto the concept of environmental illness, meeting others who have become "chemically sensitive." She decides to enroll in a program designed to treat this self-diagnosed condition, a rural, chemical-free retreat called Wrenwood that is run by a charismatic author with HIV. There, she hopes to get "clear" and reduce her "load" of toxic chemicals, in the parlance of the community. While in the program, however, her condition worsens, and she takes to a "safe" house, a small, barren igloo designed to keep all harmful substances at bay. The film then ends.
While this plot might merit little more than a movie-of-the-week logline, Haynes' technique imbues even the smallest event with an element of dread. Carol's first big crisis is actually non-chemical -- an enormous couch is delivered, but it's the wrong color: black. Amid the surrounding antiseptic decor, it sits like a poisonous harbinger of what's to come and a symbol of Carol's estrangement from her surroundings. That sense of alienation, we soon learn, is a constant presence, seeping through in the director's blocking and shot selection. Distance, disconnection, and depersonalization are part and parcel of the movie's style, which owes much to Stanley Kubrick, perhaps less to Robert Altman (see 3 Women), and even Ingmar Bergman.
This dehumanization is partly achieved by giving architecture and interiors primacy over people. In an early long shot of Carol and her husband, Greg (Xander Berkeley), Haynes drops them into a small space in the frame, where they are dwarfed by their home and the surrounding landscape. Later, a wide-angle shot of a friend's house seems to swallow Carol up as she approaches. Long shots, overhead shots, shots with lots of headroom between Carol and the top of the frame -- they all serve to minimize her personhood. In one set-up, she is shot at the edge of the frame and at the same level as the furniture, like just another object in a house that already looks entirely unlived-in. This head-on look imagines the room as a tasteless dollhouse. The only real organic tinge to the decor is lent by a pair of off-putting, egg-shaped lamps that could have wandered off a David Cronenberg set, and are all the more creepy for looking more animate than the lone human in the frame.
Carol's connection to people is as tenuous as her connection to her surroundings. Haynes maximizes the space between her and other individuals, creating a literal distance between them. People talk to each other from far away or even from different rooms, which we sometimes see separated by a wall. Twice we see Carol talking to men -- her husband and a potential love interest that never materializes (James LeGros) -- when the speakers have their backs to each other. In the case of her husband, the shot is reflected in a mirror, a double distancing.
If face-to-face communication is scarce in Safe, actual physical contact is even rarer. And when it does occur, it's conspicuous for its oddity. At the very start of the film we see Carol and her husband having sex, shot from overheard. As he pumps away at her, she evinces a tolerant-at-best look, as if abiding an animal or small child engaged in a reflexive compulsion. Later, after a business dinner during which she has fallen asleep, her husband puts his arm around her as they walk, but it looks hopelessly awkward as they lurch forward with a zombie-like gait.
"We don't really own our own lives," someone says during a locker room conversation at the gym. True enough, here. Joyless sex, a stepson whom she doesn't get along with, the wrong couch -- all those are nothing compared to the estrangement Carol feels from herself. "That's fine. He's fine. They're fine," Carol reports on family life to her mother over the phone. There is so much papering over -- with no facility for naming what's wrong, she becomes a cipher, taking on an increasingly pallid, rag doll mien as the film progresses. At night she wanders alone in her garden, where earlier she was seen tending to dying flowers. Adrift, vigorless, in possession of nothing truly her own, Carol, uncomfortable in her own skin, is someone who barely casts a shadow. In one shot, she closes a mirrored bathroom door and her image is completely wiped out across the screen.
"You do not sweat," a fellow gym patron observes.
Southern California Dystopia
There are reasons provided for this self-nullification, but Haynes almost never foregrounds them, instead knitting them into the fabric of the film. Though he portrays affluent, Reagan-era Southern California as a kind of soul-sucking dystopia with an omnipresent patriarchy, it is seen entirely through Carol's perspective and is thus normalized.
"Who told you to go to this?" Greg asks Carol after she attends an informational session on environmental illness, without even a nod to the possibility of autonomy. Greg, who is played by Berkeley as a kind of brutish, oddly robotic man-child, is the kind of guy you could see going on a rampage out of repressed rage. Other sexist slights are baked into Carol's experience. One of Greg's colleagues tells a crude joke centered around a woman's anatomy; her own medical doctor, in the middle of recommending a psychiatrist, hands the referral to Greg instead of to her; that psychiatrist sits behind a large wooden desk, both physically inaccessible and emotionally remote as he leans back in his chair interrogating Carol, fully exposed on a small couch.
This mix of male entitlement, dismissiveness, and condescension is mostly embedded in scenes with more overt story purposes. Therefore the effect, unlike, say, in Mad Men, isn't didactic, but rather a true reflection of how the ebbing of female power might play out in this kind of closed cultural system.
Haynes spreads more of these scenes-from-the-'80s throughout, using a technique of misdirection to create an almost unconscious not-quite-right effect. A typical encounter: At the dinner table, Carol's stepson, Rory, reads a school report he wrote about "black and Latino gangs," filled with racist assumptions and white-fear fantasies. The viewer, though, might easily overlook the content of what's being said, because not only does it play as secondary to a conversation between Carol and Greg, but the scene and the attitudes of all the participants are completely familiar if not iconic: a kid proudly rattling off something he wrote while his parents half-listen, then offer obligatory, perfunctory praise.
It's like looking closely at a Norman Rockwell and discovering it was actually painted by Francis Bacon.
The core motif, though, is toxicity, of both the body and soul. The film is lit in hazy/pukey tones that lend an unhealthy glow to everything. One signature shot shows rows and rows of cars moving slowly down the 405, headlights flaring in the polluted dusk, haunting music punctuating a sense of extreme isolation and environmental degradation. It's an indelible image, one that might have been conceived by T.S. Eliot: masses of people shut into their cars, herded toward some dismal destination. The feeling conveyed here is that something has gone dreadfully wrong, something now ineluctable, unappeasable, final.
And that's just the first half! What makes Safe so doubly insidious is the way it subverts audience expectations and perceptions in Act II, when Carol takes up residence at Wrenwood to purge the toxins her system can no longer handle.
Haynes says on the DVD commentary that audiences have often mistaken his intention as debunking chemical sensitivity, which has been controversial as a diagnosis because it contends that someone can become sick from exposure to substances at levels that medical science considers safe. But I would say a close reading of the film shows him to be cagey on this score, in that a physical condition doubles as metaphor and real-world consequence.
Meaning: a social toxicity is loose in the culture, just as a chemical toxicity is loose in the air. Thus, the film several times marries Carol's hypersensitivity to chemicals with the denial of her own psychology. In one scene, for instance, her husband hugs her the morning after a fight over her sexual disinclination to him, only to have her throw up. He has just applied deodorant as well as hair gel and spray. But is she allergic to those substances or to Greg himself? This is reprised later, at the retreat, when Greg attempts to embrace her and she pulls away, repulsed.
"I think it might be your cologne," she says.
"I'm not wearing cologne," he replies.
"Maybe in your shirt."
It seems unlikely, but Haynes isn't tipping his hand. Likewise, is it the actual exhaust of the trucks in front of her that triggers Carol's choking fit, or the talk-radio discussion of Ronald Reagan's religion she's been listening to? Is it something in the air at a friend's baby shower that causes her seizure? Or the cold efficiency of the event, the emptiness and conventional talk that go hand-in-hand with the ritual?
What we know -- and what the film seems to say -- is that it's much easier to latch onto an environmental cause than to examine a life. When Carol's doctor, after her seizure, frustratedly implies she's a head case, her husband asks her, "What would cause you to actually bleed?"
"The chemicals," she says, in the childish tone of any scapegoater reducing all the world's ills to one word. In this way, the film seems to wander around that nebulous intersection where real physical ailments meet psychosomatic tendencies and quackery, where an allergy doctor who diagnoses a genuine reaction also counsels a patient on the phone to "continue the red-fruit diet."
In this second half, too, Haynes uses audience presumptions to dissemble the significance of what's being said behind the familiarity of a conversational attitude. Carol's first experience with the subculture of chemically sensitive people comes during a discussion among a group of women who complain about the lack of legitimacy their condition has been granted by traditional medicine. Says one in defense of the reality of the disease:
"How does a ten-year-old say it's psychosomatic? How does he make his eyes swell shut? Why would he want to do that? He can't go into Chunky Cheese anymore. He can't go into showbiz. Why would he do that to himself?"
She has, of course, answered her own question, and also espoused the central metaphorical principle of the film: that physical illness is a concomitant of a disease of the soul. But because the woman is so self-assured and because a more conventional story structure would demand at this point a transition to a second-half resolution, most audiences will skip over the meaning of that dialogue.
The Wrenwood scenes further confuse things by mixing in self-help shibboleths with what turn out to be the harmful tenets of something akin to a cult. Yet the film may lull certain audiences into a state of acceptance, the same way it does its maincharacter.
At her arrival, for example, Carol is welcomed by two women, officials of the center, one a warm and effusive earth-mother type who is the very opposite of the repressed, conventional individuals Carol is used to, and the other an African American woman -- another antonym in her world. The latter tells her that Peter Dunning, the center's director, is a "chemically sensitive person with AIDS, so his perspective is incredibly vast." That revelation stands out in marked contrast to the earlier shame displayed by a friend who couldn't bring herself to say the name of that disease aloud.
So... a gay man unabashed by a condition that at the time stoked much fear; a black woman; an emotionally open female who provides Carol with the film's first healthy physical contact; a chemical-free haven for suffering individuals -- the signs all point to a correction of her previous situation. This subversive game continues at orientation, where Dunning preaches several seemingly progressive psychological principles. "We've left the judgmental behind, and the shaming condition that kept us locked up in all the pain," he says to the group. He cites "multiculturalism" and "environmentalism" as positive things happening in the world. He is self-deprecating. And he also inoculates his followers against the true nature of the center by communicating it as a joke. "Close your eyes…" he starts a guided meditation, "and pass your valuables to the front."
In group therapy, Dunning focuses on maintaining a positive attitude. As applied here, however, this is a dictate, not a principle. The solace he's offering is edgy and confrontational, but one again has to listen closely to what's being said to cut through the poses that Haynes foregrounds.
"Why did you become sick?" he asks one woman.
"Because I hated myself," she says, without much conviction because she is parroting a precept. After someone in the community commits suicide, Dunning bitterly instructs the group, "Let's throw away every negative, self destructive thought we might have and look around ourselves with love..." But he finishes it with, "I tried to teach him this." In another session, a woman insinuates she was a victim of incest, and he tells her she became sick because she did not forgive her abuser.
This is group therapy in hell, because not all of it is nonsensical, and the egotism is interspersed with some truths. But Dunning's the kind of a guy who will ask you a question and then interrupt with the answer; the kind of guy who will hold court at dinner regaling his female acolytes with the intricate details of an inspirational dream he just had. His treatment, a mix of new age bromides, wishful thinking, and personal hostility, is the crowning toxic brew of the entire film.
Later, when Carol's husband visits, he points to a mansion on the hill and says: "whose
house is that?"
"It's Peter's," says Carol.
That moment slips by like so many others -- uncommented on by the film yet there to gnaw at your perceptions. The true horror in Safe is that Carol has left one oppressive system only to immerse herself in another that masquerades as the healing power of love. In this environment, where the victims are blamed for their own illness, she worsens. She is forced to tote around an oxygen tank, becomes ever more pallid and thin, and develops an expanding sore on her forehead. She goes into further isolation, taking to the small igloo built and formerly occupied by the man who has committed suicide. The film ends with her looking in a mirror and saying to her reflection, "I love you." Many have called this final scene ambiguous, but I think it's pretty clear that this is where Carol is going to die.
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