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Safe (Todd Haynes) 1995


    Todd Haynes’ suburban melodrama Safe is a movie that’s so ambivalently torn between mocking its subject and looking at her with complete conviction that it becomes exhilarating. There’s a moment midway through, where when listening to a self-help tape that describes the “environmental illness” that housewife Carol White (an amazing Julianne Moore) may or may not have, she’s asked, “What is your total load?” Whether Carol’s infirmity is indeed a “total load” or a legitimately misunderstood malady seems like a straightforward question, but Haynes doesn’t ever make the decision easy for us. He often shoots Carol as a tiny figure that’s dominated by her environment, and in a few shots, he plays with light or the soundtrack (turning up a nearly imperceptible drone until it becomes unmistakable) to further suggest its impact on her. You get the sense that the almost invisible Carol first feels unique upon becoming ill, so she plays it for all it’s worth. It gives her something to do besides pick out a new couch for her home, but eventually she realizes that she doesn’t need to feel special, since she doesn’t have anything special to say, but since she’s already sick (or convinced that she is) and can’t resume her old life, she needs to retreat to find others who are like her, so she can once again gain some anonymity. It’s impossible for the audience to take her existence entirely seriously. Filled with bubble-gum pop music and trendy fad diets, strip malls and health spas, her world is such a disposable and transient one that it’s difficult to imagine anything persisting in it long enough to stir up any sort of allergic reaction. The movie maintains its steady gaze at Carol, but the audience’s perception of her condition is continually shifting. Safe moves from being a chronicle of a vapid life, to a potent AIDS metaphor, to an observation of psychosomatic insanity, to a stinging satire about the state of Southern California in 1988, to a frightening examination of the unknown.


    Midway through the film, Carol heads off to the fictional Wrenwood Center, where she seeks treatment for her disease (which apparently has affected many others). Clearly, much of the dogma that’s preached there sounds like bunk, but there’s no denying that it has a positive effect on the patients that hear it. Initially, Carol is tentative about engaging in the Wrenwood community, and her caution matches the audience’s as we struggle to get our bearings in this new environ. As she stays there, however, she begins to receive the affirmation that she lacked at home, which seems to curb many of her physical problems, but also seems to send her further into her dependency on her disease. It’s impossible not to notice that as claustrophobic as her Californian home felt, her Wrenwood residences grow increasingly tiny as she stays there. Nothing in the movie ever explicitly states this, but the suggestion seems to be that if she’s not sick, Carol doesn’t feel special in any way. I’ve seen the film several times, and the most likely explanation for her illness seems to be that it has some degree of physical validity, but Carol’s psychological needs have blown it out of proportion until she’s reached a point where she can’t tell the difference. I imagine, though, that every viewer will have a different interpretation the illness. I certainly feel differently about it with every viewing. In any case, what’s real beyond a shadow of a doubt is Carol’s stress. She is convinced that she’s sick, and because Julianne Moore inhabits her character to such a large degree, we sympathize with her even if we can’t agree with her. Her act of searching for a cure for whatever it is that ails her is far more important than whether or not what the Wrenwood clinic is selling her is legitimate. Safe succeeds brilliantly because it takes what feels like a television movie-of-the-week’s premise and infuses it with enough intelligence and ambiguity that it becomes a stunning examination of its protagonist. The audience feels pity for her poor, frustrated husband, since he’s the closest thing that the film provides to a surrogate for them, but whenever we sympathize with his anger at his wife, we later feel remorse like he does because a chilling notion occurs to us: Carol’s predicament might be real.


* * * * Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman