(Dir. Todd Haynes, United States, 1995)
Do you smell fumes?
Documenting the malaise of American suburbia had been the subject of many a late-twentieth century film (see Blue Velvet for one of the best examples, skip over American Beauty as it ranks as one of the worst), and yet Todd Haynes’ seemingly barely remembered Safe, released in 1995, is still easily one of the most important. Filmed with an eerie detachment that never sympathizes with its central character’s plight, Haynes’ film is a deeply unsettling work rife with symbolism and several intelligible interpretations often making it difficult to completely decipher – a quality I’m sure Haynes relishes. And yet, the fact that this chilling enigma manages to still get under your skin with nary a cheap scare or misplaced thrill deems it worth repeated viewings.
Opening with an ominously scored drive through a homogenous suburban neighborhood after dark, Haynes seems to suggest the following events could have happened anywhere in America. But, as the car pulls into the driveway and our characters emerge, a title marker reveals its specific time and location as San Fernando Valley in 1987, the significance of which can only be felt as the story unfolds revealing its character’s retreat from the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and parallels drawn to the spread of AIDS at the height of its crisis in the late ‘80s. We first see Carol White (an impeccable Julianne Moore) close up as she and her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) engage in lifeless sex. Greg, on top, reaches climax while Carol’s blank stare faces the camera. Even in this first sequence Haynes hints that something is not right with this affluent, self-described homemaker.
Haynes spends much of the first part of Safe introducing us to Carol and her perfectly white middle-class existence – she meets friends for lunch, attends aerobic classes at the fitness center, obsesses over the décor in her home. But, Haynes never allows us in her head. Instead, he mostly utilizes wide shots to captures these early moments of Carol’s daily routine effectively distancing us from a character whose life is virtually meaningless. The pale pinks and creams of Carol’s wardrobe almost blend in with Moore’s fair skin, and when she stands aimlessly in her garden or in her heavily decorated living room, she nearly disappears completely, becoming nothing more than a fixture of her vacant house.
That these visuals – beautifully captured by director of photography Alex Nepomniaschy – convey the soullessness of Carol’s neatly ordered, yet vacuous life in their own right, it comes as somewhat of a surprise when Haynes takes his narrative into even darker territory as this housewife slowly becomes inexplicably ill. At first, a coughing fit while driving on the interstate and a bloody nose while getting a perm both alert Carol to the potentiality of a problem, but after she lapses into asthmatic convulsions at a baby shower, she decides to see a doctor. When he insists that there is nothing physically wrong with her, he refers her to a psychiatrist. Though these episodes do not cease, these medical professionals and her husband still do not believe her.
The significance of these opinions regarding Carol’s physical and mental health belonging to men alludes to the oft-cited notion that suburbia exists as a cage for the women it ensnares (something Haynes explores more extensively in Far From Heaven to less engaging results), but here Haynes doesn’t spend too much time with the idea in favor of pointing to the faults and destructive attitudes present in Carol herself, not toward the institutions that likely encourage them. We see signs of Carol’s self-absorbed nature early on mostly in relation to her Spanish-speaking housemaid Fulvia (Martha Velez) who stands as one of the two or three minorities present in Haynes’ intentionally whitewashed film. Fulvia is present when we witness the first emotional reaction Carol has in response to a wrong-colored sofa delivered to her home. When she speaks with a salesclerk at the furniture store directly, she denies that the original order could have requested black because it doesn’t match anything in their home. It may be too obvious to read Carol’s annoyed explanation as a blatant metaphor for racism and the racially unequal exclusion inherent in suburbia in an otherwise much subtler film, but it could be a helpful hint from Haynes as to where Safe is headed.
Haynes furthers this notion in another scene revolving around Carol’s interaction with Fulvia. After her stepson Rory (Chauncey Leopardi) leaves for school one morning, Carol deliberately interrupts Fulvia conversing with other house staff in the kitchen and childishly asks for a glass of milk. When the maid consents and hands this grown woman her chilled beverage, Carol sits in the center of the frame and gulps down her milk with an earnestness missing in any other activity. Carol’s unwillingness to pour her own glass of milk in favor of being served reveals her own feelings toward Fulvia and others like her who seemingly only belong in this all-white neighborhood as hired help. Given her position as a housemaid, it’s likely Fulvia cannot afford Carol’s lifestyle and lives closer to the center of this Californian urban landscape, thus representing the very type of people the suburbs have been designed to keep out.
As Carol’s illness worsens, she sees a flyer at the health club that reads, “Do you smell fumes?” And, after attending a short informational session on what she learns is called environmental illness, Carol decides she too must suffer from chemical sensitivity in this over-industrialized city. The pieces all seem to fit together for Carol – her coughing attack attributed to car exhaust, her vomiting a result of her husband’s hairspray and cologne – as she immerses herself in the world of extreme health-consciousness. When she learns of a rehabilitation center in the middle of the desert in New Mexico for patients with chemical sensitivities, she convinces her husband she must give it a shot.
The second half of Haynes’ film, then, transports us to this New Age commune-like hermitage masked as a rehabilitation center. The promise of complete healing that the founders of Wrenwood perpetuate keep Carol there despite the discomfort she initially experiences as some of its cultish ways become more apparent. Here the charismatic teacher Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman) preaches a reaffirming self-love to combat his patients’ ailments and promotes further seclusion from the outside world so that they may remain safe. During Carol’s stay at Wrenwood, Haynes’ major themes bubble to the surface. Her rapid retreat into isolation coupled with Peter’s teachings encouraging the residents to turn off the news and think positively mirror Carol’s suburban existence before she ever became sick. The gated upper-middle-class home in which she lives effectively separates her from the seemingly terrifying unknown of diversity and lower-class economic status that typically mark the inhabitants of the inner city. From aerobics class to expensive lunches, Carol need never interact with anyone remotely different from her. And, if she ever does feel threatened by the “toxins” of this urban life, she need only cloister herself in the safe haven of her suburban neighborhood.
Despite her self-assurances, Carol (as well as several other residents) does not improve while staying at Wrenwood. In fact, it seems her conditions worsens. Toward the end of the film lesions form across her frail visage, and we never see her without a small tank of oxygen in tow. In constant fear of more exposure to harmful chemicals, Carol requests to move into a tiny, porcelain-lined igloo that her mentor describes as “perfectly safe as long as no sets foot inside.” Haynes ends his film with Carol safely tucked away in her igloo completely isolated from the outside world. Here she believes through self-affirmations and clean air she will finally be healed. The film closes with an as yet unseen close-up of Carol’s sickly face as she stares into the mirror muttering, “I love you” to herself. This illness, in Carol’s mind, stems from a life that exists outside the comfort of her own, and an escape from that reality holds the cure. But, in the end, we see that this intentional solitude that breeds a meaningless existence is the real toxicity eating away at the shell that she’s become. She may feel safe shutting out the rest of the world behind the curtains of her luxurious home, but this false sense of safety will keep her from experiencing a life worth living.