Produced by Christine Vachon, Lauren Zalaznick.
In the San Fernando Valley in 1987 a couple lives a bland, affluent lifestyle. They have a large, stylish house, a maid, one child – a son from his previous marriage - and only he works for a living. She gardens, wearing gloves, as he goes off to work, though the flowers she tends are drooping, dying. There’s a reminder to call the landscapers and she’s having a new couch delivered today. This couple seems to lack the slightest intimacy even when making love. In the missionary position, he’s briefly passionate, but he could be having sex with a blown-up doll. She’s uninvolved, miles away, although she holds him patiently and reassuringly in the way one holds a child. In the camera’s angle from straight above them, it’s clear that this is accepted as normal, as though they have no idea of any other way of being. The film has a feel of sterility and unengaged role-playing in the superficial catalogue glossiness of their uneventful lives.
In Safe, writer/director Todd Haynes’ important movie about the ‘20th Century Disease’ we only gradually become aware, as do the characters, that there is something unseen and deadly affecting them. Carol White (Julianne Moore) is a California house wife who knows very little about herself or anything deeper than socially accepted norms. A gentle, unassertive person, she so needs to feel safe that she keeps herself at arm’s length from life and from experiencing anything that could threaten her idea of an ordered existence. Even when doing an aerobics class, Carol, in the back row, is just going through the motions. She expends little energy and, to the envy of her friends, does not sweat.
Gradually the apparently innocuous environment around Carol is shown to be harmful to her. The fumes from the painters in her kitchen, a glass of milk, the chemicals in the fabric of her new couch, her dry cleaning: these are all things we now know to create allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. In the 80’s, when the film is set, it was just being discovered how environmental toxins can affect our immune system in extreme ways. Housewives, in particular, were suffering extreme reactions to the chemicals they were encountering in everyday life in the safety of their own homes. They were ‘allergic to the 20th century’.
Carol’s journey involves a paradox. She is a woman who, in order to be truly living her life, needs to get her hands dirty and engage a full range of senses and emotions. Instead, as she becomes more and more affected by the toxicity around her, her instinctive aversion to interaction with life is reinforced by her increasing need to keep away from harmful elements in it.
In a conversation with her girlfriend she decides to try to correct her constant tiredness and lack of energy by starting a ‘cleansing’ fruit only diet (which ironically weakens and acidifies her metabolism even more, creating even more extreme sensitivity). She has a perm and a manicure to make herself feel better only to find the strong chemicals give her a nose-bleed. Carol goes back to her doctor who has no explanation and invalidates her feeling ill by recommending a psychiatrist. At the psychiatrist’s it’s evident she is unable to plumb the depths of her own mind and emotions, expecting in her passive way to be told what is wrong with her.
She tries to carry on as normal, and finally, leaving aerobics after being too weak to finish the class, her attention is drawn to a pamphlet about allergies and fumes. Her husband, by now baffled and resentful, accompanies her to a meeting where others affected by strong chemicals in their environment tell their stories. Finally Carol’s increasingly violent reactions cause her to seek sanctuary in Wrenwood, an isolated New Age retreat in New Mexico, where others whose immune systems have been similarly compromised have taken up residence and gathered with a view not only to keeping physically safe but also to finding some deep inner, emotional causes for their susceptibility to environmental toxins.
The film’s slow progress, its long camera angles dwelling on silent moments of Carol sitting or standing alone in her world – whether that world is emotionally sterile as in the beginning or actually sterile as in the final act of the film – give a sense of gently permeating and unseen menace. Julianne Moore (The Hours and Far from Heaven, also with director Todd Haynes), gives a deeply affecting performance as Carol, the woman who has tried to avoid life until it comes after her with a vengeance. Losing 10 pounds for the role, she looks convincingly weak, debilitated and anxious. As Greg White, Carol’s increasingly impatient husband, Xander Berkley (Shanghai Noon, 24) gives an appropriately disconnected performance.
There are several calculated risks in Haynes’ choice of the affluent Californian suburban setting; in showing Carol as unaware as she is, as well as in the slow pace of the film with its gradual emergence of unsuspected danger in the aridity of the Whites’ relationship. The main risk is in the film’s not having quite enough dramatic tension to hold the viewer. The intention was to set the film in an innocent and unthreatened time and place, and allow us as viewers to experience Carol’s self-discoveries. Well-crafted and beautifully shot as the film is, and with as potent and important a message as it has, it is perhaps a little inaccessible for today’s drama-saturated audiences. Most of all, the New Age mantras and heart-felt realisations reached by the guru and residents of the Wrenwood community come across as trite or corny truisms, or in one case as a desperate grasping for a method of dealing with strong emotions which patently does not work, and instead is simply another version of what Carol has done all her life. The film skates over depths of simple realisations of inner truth and self-acknowledgement so that Carol’s final affirmation carries faint conviction.
Despite this, Safe has a lasting impact of haunting images of disconnection and isolation: subtle reminders of the need for deep inner resources within ourselves.
© Avril Carruthers, 11th June 2004
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