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 sideforming a gauntlet of initiation into some sort of emotional or even societal decline. Asthe car rolls into a gated community, composer Ed Tomney's score is pregnant withforeboding.
That pitch-perfectly disturbing tone never lets up. I've been trying to convince friends foryears that Todd Haynes' 1995 film is one of the great American films, but watching itcan 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 apowerhouse horror vehicle like Rosemary's Baby. In Safe, however, themonster is so omnipresent, it's barely identifiable. In fact, after this moody masterpiecehas wormed its way into your head for a couple of hours, you're not quite sure exactlywhat it is that's planted within you -- the kind of anxiety and fear normally evoked byclinging nightmares.
What makes the film so frightening? A synopsis would seem to provide few clues. CarolWhite (Julianne Moore), a San Fernando Valley housewife in a well-heeled, cloisteredcommunity circa 1987, spends her days decorating and errand-hopping until shedevelops an intolerable sensitivity to airborne toxic substances and householdchemicals. Her condition worsens, and after several attacks, a seizure that sends her tothe hospital, and the failure of her doctor to find any physical cause, she stumbles ontothe concept of environmental illness, meeting others who have become"chemically sensitive." She decides to enroll in a program designed to treat this self-diagnosedcondition, a rural, chemical-free retreat called Wrenwood that is run by acharismatic author with HIV. There, she hopes to get "clear" and reduce her "load" oftoxic chemicals, in the parlance of the community. While in the program, however, hercondition worsens, and she takes to a "safe" house, a small, barren igloo designed tokeep 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 bigcrisis is actually non-chemical -- an enormous couch is delivered, but it's the wrongcolor: black. Amid the surrounding antiseptic decor, it sits like a poisonous harbinger ofwhat's to come and a symbol of Carol's estrangement from her surroundings. Thatsense of alienation, we soon learn, is a constant presence, seeping through in thedirector's blocking and shot selection. Distance, disconnection, and depersonalizationare part and parcel of the movie's style, which owes much to Stanley Kubrick, perhapsless to Robert Altman (see 3 Women), and even Ingmar Bergman.
This dehumanization is partly achieved by giving architecture and interiors primacy overpeople. 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 theirhome and the surrounding landscape. Later, a wide-angle shot of a friend's houseseems to swallow Carol up as she approaches. Long shots, overhead shots, shots withlots of headroom between Carol and the top of the frame -- they all serve to minimizeher personhood. In one set-up, she is shot at the edge of the frame and at the samelevel as the furniture, like just another object in a house that already looks entirelyunlived-in. This head-on look imagines the room as a tasteless dollhouse. The only realorganic tinge to the decor is lent by a pair of off-putting, egg-shaped lamps that couldhave wandered off a David Cronenberg set, and are all the more creepy for lookingmore animate than the lone human in the frame.
Carol's connection to people is as tenuous as her connection to her surroundings. Haynesmaximizes the space between her and other individuals, creating a literal distancebetween 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 -- herhusband and a potential love interest that never materializes (James LeGros) -- whenthe speakers have their backs to each other. In the case of her husband, the shot isreflected in a mirror, a double distancing.
If face-to-face communication is scarce in Safe, actual physical contact is evenrarer. And when it does occur, it's conspicuous for its oddity. At the very start of the filmwe see Carol and her husband having sex, shot from overheard. As he pumps away ather, she evinces a tolerant-at-best look, as if abiding an animal or small child engagedin a reflexive compulsion. Later, after a business dinner during which she has fallenasleep, her husband puts his arm around her as they walk, but it looks hopelesslyawkward as they lurch forward with a zombie-like gait.
"We don't really own our own lives," someone says during a locker room conversation atthe 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 fromherself. "That's fine. He's fine. They're fine," Carol reports on family life to her motherover the phone. There is so much papering over -- with no facility for naming what's wrong, shebecomes a cipher, taking on an increasingly pallid, rag doll mien as the filmprogresses. At night she wanders alone in her garden, where earlier she was seentending 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, shecloses a mirrored bathroom door and her image is completely wiped out across thescreen.
"You do not sweat," a fellow gym patron observes.
Southern California Dystopia
There are reasons provided for this self-nullification, but Haynes almost neverforegrounds them, instead knitting them into the fabric of the film. Though he portraysaffluent, Reagan-era Southern California as a kind of soul-sucking dystopia with anomnipresent patriarchy, it is seen entirely through Carol's perspective and is thusnormalized.
"Who told you to go to this?" Greg asks Carol after she attends an informational sessionon environmental illness, without even a nod to the possibility of autonomy. Greg, who isplayed by Berkeley as a kind of brutish, oddly robotic man-child, is the kind ofguy you could see going on a rampage out of repressed rage. Other sexist slights arebaked into Carol's experience. One of Greg's colleagues tells a crude joke centeredaround a woman's anatomy; her own medical doctor, in the middle of recommending apsychiatrist, hands the referral to Greg instead of to her; that psychiatrist sits behind alarge wooden desk, both physically inaccessible and emotionally remote as he leansback in his chair interrogating Carol, fully exposed on a small couch.
This mix of male entitlement, dismissiveness, and condescension is mostly embeddedin scenes with more overt story purposes. Therefore the effect, unlike, say, in MadMen, isn't didactic, but rather a true reflection of how the ebbing of female powermight play out in this kind of closed cultural system.
Haynes spreads more of these scenes-from-the-'80s throughout, using a technique ofmisdirection 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 "blackand 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 itplay as secondary to a conversation between Carol and Greg, but the scene and theattitudes of all the participants are completely familiar if not iconic: a kid proudly rattlingoff something he wrote while his parents half-listen, then offer obligatory, perfunctorypraise.
It's like looking closely at a Norman Rockwell and discovering it was actually painted byFrancis Bacon.
The core motif, though, is toxicity, of both the body and soul. The film is lit in hazy/pukeytones that lend an unhealthy glow to everything. One signature shot shows rowsand rows of cars moving slowly down the 405, headlights flaring in the polluted dusk,haunting music punctuating a sense of extreme isolation and environmentaldegradation. 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. Thefeeling conveyed here is that something has gone dreadfully wrong, something nowineluctable, unappeasable, final.
And that's just the first half! What makes Safe so doubly insidious is the way itsubverts audience expectations and perceptions in Act II, when Carol takes upresidence at Wrenwood to purge the toxins her system can no longer handle.
Haynes says on the DVD commentary that audiences have often mistaken his intentionas debunking chemical sensitivity, which has been controversial as a diagnosisbecause it contends that someone can become sick from exposure to substances atlevels that medical science considers safe. But I would say a close reading of the filmshows him to be cagey on this score, in that a physical condition doubles as metaphorand 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 denialof her own psychology. In one scene, for instance, her husband hugs her the morningafter a fight over her sexual disinclination to him, only to have her throw up. He has justapplied deodorant as well as hair gel and spray. But is she allergic to those substancesor to Greg himself? This is reprised later, at the retreat, when Greg attempts to embraceher 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 ofthe trucks in front of her that triggers Carol's choking fit, or the talk-radio discussion ofRonald Reagan's religion she's been listening to? Is it something in the air at a friend'sbaby shower that causes her seizure? Or the cold efficiency of the event, the emptinessand 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 ontoan 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 toactually bleed?"
"The chemicals," she says, in the childish tone of any scapegoater reducing all theworld's ills to one word. In this way, the film seems to wander around that nebulousintersection where real physical ailments meet psychosomatic tendencies and quackery,where an allergy doctor who diagnoses a genuine reaction also counsels a patient onthe phone to "continue the red-fruit diet."
In this second half, too, Haynes uses audience presumptions to dissemble thesignificance of what's being said behind the familiarity of a conversational attitude.Carol's first experience with the subculture of chemically sensitive people comes duringa discussion among a group of women who complain about the lack of legitimacy theircondition has been granted by traditional medicine. Says one in defense of the reality ofthe disease:
"How does a ten-year-old say it's psychosomatic? How does he make his eyes swellshut? Why would he want to do that? He can't go into Chunky Cheese anymore. Hecan't go into showbiz. Why would he do that to himself?"
She has, of course, answered her own question, and also espoused the centralmetaphorical principle of the film: that physical illness is a concomitant of a disease ofthe soul. But because the woman is so self-assured and because a more conventionalstory structure would demand at this point a transition to a second-half resolution, mostaudiences will skip over the meaning of that dialogue.
The Wrenwood scenes further confuse things by mixing in self-help shibboleths withwhat 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, onea 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'sdirector, is a "chemically sensitive person with AIDS, so his perspective is incrediblyvast." That revelation stands out in marked contrast to the earlier shame displayed by afriend 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 blackwoman; an emotionally open female who provides Carol with the film's first healthyphysical contact; a chemical-free haven for suffering individuals -- the signs all point to acorrection 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 inall the pain," he says to the group. He cites "multiculturalism" and "environmentalism" aspositive things happening in the world. He is self-deprecating. And he also inoculateshis followers against the true nature of the center by communicating it as a joke. "Closeyour 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 andconfrontational, but one again has to listen closely to what's being said to cut throughthe 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 aprecept. After someone in the community commits suicide, Dunning bitterly instructs thegroup, "Let's throw away every negative, self destructive thought we might have andlook around ourselves with love..." But he finishes it with, "I tried to teach him this." Inanother session, a woman insinuates she was a victim of incest, and he tells her shebecame sick because she did not forgive her abuser.
This is group therapy in hell, because not all of it is nonsensical, and the egotism isinterspersed with some truths. But Dunning's the kind of a guy who will ask you aquestion and then interrupt with the answer; the kind of guy who will hold court at dinnerregaling his female acolytes with the intricate details of an inspirational dream he justhad. 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: "whosehouse is that?"
"It's Peter's," says Carol.
That moment slips by like so many others -- uncommented on by the film yet thereto gnaw at your perceptions. The true horror in Safe is that Carol has left oneoppressive system only to immerse herself in another that masquerades as the healingpower 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 pallidand thin, and develops an expanding sore on her forehead. She goes into furtherisolation, taking to the small igloo built and formerly occupied by the man who hascommitted suicide. The film ends with her looking in a mirror and saying to herreflection, "I love you." Many have called this final scene ambiguous, but I think it'spretty clear that this is where Carol is going to die.