Todd Haynes’ Safe was for a long time, in Australia at least, a lost film. I first saw it at the Melbourne Film Festival in 1996, and was so knocked out that I went again, the very next day. At that time, it seemed that no distributor wanted to pick it up for local release; it took eight years to begin publicly circulating again. I believe it is among the most significant and extraordinary American films of 1990s. The effect it had on me, at any rate, was indelible and profound.
Periodically, commentators-at-large try to pinpoint the latest taboo in popular culture. Is it kinky sex, the spectre of death, or the political reality of social class? My nomination would be illness. It is astonishing, really, that debilitating sickness is so rarely represented in movies, given what a widespread reality it is. Safe breaks that taboo; it’s about things that movies are almost never about. Illness: the experience of being ill, and the attempt to get free of that burden, to become healthy again. When distributors in 1996 told me that there is no audience for this film – as demanding and depressing as it most definitely is – I had to grit my teeth and laugh. No film I have ever seen has portrayed the universal, modern experience of sickness with the compelling accuracy and intensity that this movie does! What person in the world does this subject matter not touch? Even speaking about the film on radio in 1996 brought a storm of letters and telephone calls, proving to me that there is an audience – a general audience as well as a cinephile one – longing to see this film, because of what it tackles.
If I’m sounding a bit vague and diffuse in my description so far, it’s because the film itself deals with sickness at a somewhat abstract, generalised level. This is not a story about cancer, AIDS or, indeed, any well-known, specific disease. It’s about a monstrous, indefinable condition called by characters in the film “environmental illness”, even an “allergy to the 20th century”; Haynes based his depiction on real-life documentation and campaigning around this strange condition. But the illness, as Safe dramatises it, is a fuzzy but deeply palpable amalgam of all kinds of entirely familiar states and complaints of the 20th century and, grimly, beyond it: stress, chronic fatigue syndrome, breakdown of immune systems, allergic reactions – plus every kind of neurotic symptom or blockage accompanying those states.
We are plunged deep into the mysterious realm of the psychosomatic: we see people who are sick, dying, utterly dysfunctional – but no doctor can say for sure whether it’s a mind problem, a body problem, or a social-environmental problem, let alone what exact mixture of these factors. Nobody inside (or, indeed, outside) the movie knows what the precise cause-and-effect interaction between mind, body, environment and society truly is. You could say that Safe is about sickness almost as a lifestyle, the contemporary lifestyle. And it’s about the desperate, hopeless search for a cure.
Safe is also about a woman, sick Everywoman Carol – an astonishing performance from Julianne Moore, the best of her career. Haynes takes many chances with this character. Anyone who dares parrot the film-industry wisdom that a film’s central character must be likeable should be strapped into a chair to watch Moore take this figure through her desperately sad paces. Carol is as empty and vacuous as you can possibly imagine. She barely speaks, barely finishes a sentence; and when she does, it’s often just the meaningless drone of everyday suburban conversation. As when she’s on the phone to her mother, and all we hear is her chanting: “Fine … I’m fine … he’s fine”. Carol is the immaculate suburban woman; she starts to tell her shrink at one point that she’s a housewife, but carefully amends that to “homemaker”. There is seemingly nothing meaningful in her life, beyond routine, surface rituals. Sex with her husband is shown as a grim, alienated chore. There’s really only food, shopping, redecorating, aerobics and dainty little homemaker parties for Carol.
So is Safe just some smarmy satire on empty, materialist, American suburbia and its soulless inhabitants? There is, certainly, a level of satirical comedy directed at this peculiar Los Angeles milieu. But the ambiguous level of Safe is its premise that this very character, this blank and insignificant Carol, will become the repository and the embodiment of our global, modern sickness. And when she’s stricken with it, you cannot help but feel for her; cannot help but identify in a way that very few films have ever managed to make me identify with the plight of a purely illusory, fictional character.
What’s up with Carol? Odd things in the air start getting to her in a big way, causing inexplicable, excessive, symptomatic reactions. Her nose bleeds when she’s getting her hair permed. The car and truck fumes on a busy highway give her a panic attack. The fumigation going on in a dry-cleaning joint sends her crashing to the floor, twitching and bleeding. According to certain experts canvassed in the narrative, it’s all a question of a barrage of chemicals that break down our immune systems and make us “allergic to the 20th century”. And this is, finally, the explanation that Carol chooses to believe, and tries to act upon. But is this environmental illness so easily explained, can it so quickly be blamed on the material, toxic substances all around us?
Despite everything that one can say about its evident plot, Safe is a film that works on the basis of an unspoken subject, a “secret centre”. That partly explains why it ranks among the most disturbing, chilling, creepiest movies about modern, social life. It’s not just about sickness in a physical sense – although that physicality is shattering enough already in its depiction. It’s more about illness as metaphor (to use Susan Sontag’s famous book title). And what this illness seems to express, symbolically, is a yawning, cavernous malaise, anxiety or dread permeating literally every part of every surface of the world, every creeping second of the day and night.
For it’s not only chemicals that launch Carol into her seizures, spasms and nose-bleeds or her terrifying inability to breathe at certain moments. Sometimes it seems to be the very spaces in which she dwells, the rooms or the lighting within her own house; or the small but accumulating, tiny tensions of social interaction. Sometimes it’s the just the sheer terror of being alone, anywhere. Safe is a portrait of malaise and contamination: it’s as if the whole “built environment”, the physical, social world, is cold and sick; that is the disease seeping in through every pore of Carol’s human body. There’s no protection, no borders for her between the inside of her body and the world outside. On this plane, the film reminded me of something the brilliant critic Ronnie Scheib [1944-2015] wrote about the traumatised heroines of Ida Lupino’s films: “Between their subjectivity and the world, there is nothing”. This is the horror of constant, unstoppable contamination that Safe shows; and, let me tell you, I got a headache and cold sweats sitting there in the theatre, identifying (to the point of vertigo) with Carol.
The omnipresent dread that this movie so perfectly prompts in its viewers is a function of its cinematic style. Safe is brilliantly conceived and executed by Haynes (it is, without a doubt, his most formidable achievement), in ways that I didn’t think he was capable of from the evidence of earlier, jazzier, more superficial films like Poison (1991). Before shooting, Haynes screened for his cast and crew two films: Stanley Kubrick’s visionary classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); and Chantal Akerman’s equally masterful Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Brussels (1975), a long and remarkable movie about a sequence of days in the life of a semi-ordinary housewife. The suburban world of Safe has the spaced-out, anti-septic, arid, sci-fi look of 2001; and Haynes’ camera has the same patient, obsessive, tense regard of Akerman’s camera – and he also re-creates the latter film’s sense of a catastophe always about to happen within the banal, everyday grind.
Haynes and cinemtaographer Alex Nepomniaschy shoot almost the entire film in long shot: the empty chasm-space in the frame, combined with the steady duration of the shots and his penchant for slow tracking-in movements to a freaked-out Carol, who is often imprisoned within multiple grids – these are the formal devices that give Safe its emotional power. Visually, Haynes creates a world of separations and divisions: Carol is always alone, cut off from her friends, her servants, and especially her somewhat insensitive husband (Xander Berkeley as Greg). Another cinematic influence is palpable: Michelangelo Antonioni, especially his crucial film Red Desert (1964) about a hyper-sensitive woman living in an almost sci-fi ambience of modernity. The cold, severe lines of public architecture also testify to this influence.
On the aural level its holistic sound design (music score by Brendan Dolan & Ed Tomney included), the film’s style is more subliminally haunting: full of the quiet whirr of domestic machines, air conditioners and refrigerators, of low-volume talk-back radio and Muzak. Haynes often takes away this unnerving bed of sound altogether just before a scene ends, leaving us with the even more unsettling effect of a perfect sonic vacuum.
The other main subject of Safe is New Age therapy. The story falls into two parts: Carol’s gradual total collapse in her home environment; and then her relocation to a health resort, Wrenwood, run by a New Age guru, Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman). Here again, a note of satire briefly sounds; we see all these happy, smiley people, singing their songs about a perfect world and giving unctuous testimonials, chanting that “All is right with the world”. For a minute or two here, we can only groan.
But the second half ultimately becomes every bit as chilling as the first. Haynes, who was motivated by personal rage on the matter, explores the New Age ethos from a critical angle: in particular, its tendency to have every individual blame themselves for their illness, to thereby “own” their condition – all the while being told to forgive everyone else, to forgive society. There is an excruciating scene in which Guru Peter gathers various patients in a circle and mercilessly extracts their personal stories – only to re-write them so as to fit his own New Age ideology. Peter smiles sweetly and exudes his sinister charisma throughout the length of this discourse. The cure may well yet turn out to be worse than the sickness itself.
But, on this level, Safe remains staunchly ambiguous – not a facile satire or even a hard critique of New Age medicine. When it shows us the pain, suffering and physical deterioration of these people, this registers as real (not fake or contrived “auto-suggested”) pain. And the yearning to be free of that pain is just as genuine. What we witness is the failure of two different value systems in the face of all this pain and yearning. First, the failure of rational, Western medicine, the milieu of General Practitioners and psychiatrists of every stripe (representatives of the latter group are very quick to dismiss Carol’s complaints as some form of women’s hysteria, obscure female trouble – just like in the horror film The Entity !). And then also the failure of the New Age, “alternative” solution.
Signs of death and despair, and that familiar creeping malaise in every pore, fill the second half of Safe as much as the first. Carol still cries and panics inexplicably; she gets thinner and sicker-looking than ever. When she is finally called on to testify to whatever personal wisdom she has learned at this crazy farm, all she can utter are meaningless, strangled clichés – in the most devastating scene of the entire movie. Carol finds herself in a new (or renewed) bind. Previously, at home, she spiralled downwards into greater sickness. Now, on the farm, she is gripped by the New Age compulsion to be safe, to get “clear”, be clean, to empty her system of everything that can possibly harm her. And she becomes a ghost in the process.
I see Safe as a “woman’s film” version of so many male-centred stories of driven obsession or exhaustion. Men in the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback, Paul Schrader or Abel Ferrara also try to get clean and clear, to redeem themselves or empty out their sinful, bad impulses – but through excess, outward-directed rituals of violence, blood-letting and purging, even suicide. But there is not even a raging-bull or bad-lieutenant type of redemption for Carol. Our emptied-out heroine takes the classically inward, anorexic route: she starves and shields herself, cuts herself from the world to a monstrous degree – a different mode of suicide, a living death.
Safe is an especially confronting film for viewers who may have – quite correctly – aligned Haynes with a progressive left perspective. This is because any radical solution is staunchly missing from the world of these characters, and also from the movie itself. It is a film about the hopelessness of the situation it shows. Or rather, it shows the desperation, the flickering out of every last avenue for individual hope.
Safe is a profoundly despairing film on that level, on par with Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In (1993). But both films are expressions of a furiously engaged, overwhelmingly powerful, shockingly lucid despair. The hope in Safe is that some of this lucid rage will pass on, not to Carol (far gone by the narrative dead-end), but to spectators – who may then be a little better equipped to face the sickness that is the modern world.
© Adrian Martin August 1996 / May 2004