The magnetism of Todd Haynes’ Safe stems from its ability to deceive, a willingness to lure in through hypnotic, steady motion and quickly detach by shifting focus and negating its initial instincts. What begins as a paralyzing examination of a deteriorating human body gradually morphs into a condemnation of the cure instead of the disease, exposing the self-help movement as a malady of the mind that advocates dissociation over self-actualization.
Filming the San Fernando Valley from a distance, capturing the enormity of wealth with clinical focus, Safe observes Carol White (Julianne Moore) with a detached stillness, symbolizing her malaise through cold, symmetrical photography and stabbing bursts of steely, isolated synthesizer. Never uttering a word above a whisper and passive to the point of torpid, Carol only springs to life in defense of her upholstery, clinging desperately to the one aspect of domesticity under her control. Sex has even lost its cathartic power for Carol, signified by the metaphorical snare she occupies beneath her husband as he writhes atop her inert frame.
Carol’s internal suffering begins to externalize itself through discomfort and debility, the camera surveying her sallow skin and paretic limbs as she struggles to hoist a glass of milk to her lips. Her infrequent excursions out-of-doors are even interrupted by this ambiguous ailment, propelling her into frenzied coughing bouts as she inhales exhaust from passing dump trucks. The cause of her enervate state remains a mystery until Carol happens upon an infomercial regarding deep ecology, a movement that stresses “spiritual awareness” in an increasingly toxic environment. Through the guidance of the advertorial and the suggestions of a friend, Carol adopts an all-fruit diet, desperate to cleanse “the body of all toxins” and recapture her youthful glow.
Diverting from her usual routine, Carol opts for a “perm” at the hair salon, seeking physical reinvention to match the modifications made to her regimen. As the chemical relaxer is poured over her scalp, irrigating through the channels of damp hair, sound effects simulate the bubbling and gurgling of a mad scientist’s lab, demonstrating Carol’s newfound paranoia through non-diegetic sound. The horror of Carol’s mind finally leaps forth from her body in a stream of blood, trickling slowly from her nostril and over her pale, peach skin.
Aerosol usage in the boudoir continues to exacerbate her condition, compelling her to vomit after embracing her hairspray-soaked husband, who has grown weary of her lack of sexual desire and inability to keep up appearances. Friends even gossip about her worsening psoriasis and lack of participation at aerobics, treating a panic attack at a baby shower as a cause for embarrassment instead of concern. The isolation that had festered inside has materialized on the surface, paralleling her affliction, forcing her to seek approval elsewhere, drawing her closer to the culture of self-guided improvement advertised on television and gymnasium message boards.
“Environmental illness” is the disease preached by these holistic seminars, stressing the corrosiveness of synthetic materials in food, air, water and habitat, persuading attendees to “create an oasis” in their homes free from toxic infiltration. The influence of charismatic speakers and ideological branding seems to make Carol’s symptoms more severe, resulting in seizures, labored breathing and seclusion from the outside world, all at the behest of amelioration. The last stop on Carol’s downward spiral into solitude is Wrenwood, an idyllic facility that harbors the environmentally ill and emphasizes a complete avoidance of actuality. The impact and charm of the group’s leader, who has beaten AIDS through the power of positive thinking, commandeers Carol’s free will just like the chemicals overwhelmed her body, inspiring her to adopt the behavior and physiological infirmity of the most severe and reclusive patients. Sleeping in an igloo and breathing with the assistance of an oxygen tank, Carol revels in the acceptance of her fellow victims and believes she’s on the path to recovery, but doesn’t recognize that she’s exchanged the bondage of marriage for a prison of the mind.
Safe never belabors the true nature of Carol’s “illness,” suggesting instead that society’s fear of disease allows the sick to be marginalized and manipulated, birthing the false prophecy of self-improvement. By breaking the film into contrasting segments, one that exploits the body and one that exploits the mind, Todd Haynes satirizes modern medicine, exposing the fear that fuels an industry of “doctors” and the desire for approval that drives an industry of “healers.”
Safe (Sony Pictures Classics, 1995)
Written and Directed by Todd Haynes
Photographed by Alex Nepomniaschy