In the second to last screening installation of the Todd Haynes Retrospective, the Centre Pompidou invites visitors to watch his 1995 psychological drama, “Safe”. Almost thirty years after this first collaboration with Julianne Moore, his latest film and their latest collaboration “May December” premiered at Cannes earlier this month.
Safe is the story of Carol White, a suburban housewife whose mysterious ailments doctors can’t diagnose. Before seeing the movie, I assumed the plot would keep her sickness mysterious and would read a little like if Mike Mills directed an episode of House M.D.- but the story is much more layered than that. As Carol (Julianne Moore) tries to maintain her role as homemaker and wife, she finds herself having coughing fits while driving down the interstate and eating ice-cream birthday cake. She vomits while hugging her freshly coiffed husband goodbye for work. Blood trickles out of her nose as she admires a new perm. Walking into a green haze of pest-spray at the dry cleaners induces a violent seizure.
Blood tests, psychiatric treatment, and fruit diets prove fruitless to helping her condition, until she meets others like her- people who can “smell the fumes” or- people who claim their bodies can’t cope with the toxins and chemicals to which they are exposed in modern life. As she begins to identify the food, products, materials, and environments which trigger her illness, she finds some relief. Eventually, her illness ostracizes her to the point of moving to a chemical-free healing community.
Carol is delicate and traditionally feminine, sweet but tuned-out, shyly determined. She’s got a sort of whimsical superficiality that lends itself to stoic strength in the beginning as she tries to keep up appearances. Ironically though, as her health deteriorates, she seems almost self-indulgent. I don’t entirely care that she’s suffering…maybe it has something to do with her small, high-pitched voice, or the way she yelled at the maid from across the house. There’s a disconnect- even the audio of her coughing is played louder and a little off from the image we see on the screen. The boy we think is her son is subtly revealed to be only her step-son, slightly untethering her to her role as mother. She tries to be a good wife, but there isn’t really any passion there, so we aren’t rooting for her romance either.
And so, as is the hallmark of many great characters, it’s hard to know if the audience is supposed to sympathize with her or not. On one hand, she’s kind of unintentionally breaking the glass ceiling. But we never really know if she’s sick, if it’s all in her head, or if that’s the point- that the call is coming from inside the house. Then on the other hand, her healing journey is pretty satirized by its privileged San Fernando Valley backdrop. The new-age preachers of clean living that she finds solace in lean towards cult. Although she is repressed, suffering, and sweet seeming, she’s not entirely lovable. As a woman, I fear that my own internalized misogyny is responsible for these feelings. It gives the whole film quite an eerie tone- not knowing where to place Carol or her invisible illness.
In quite a quick tone shift which struck me while watching the movie, members of her new community sit in a circle outside and are asked when they made themselves sick. Their group therapy instructor explains- when you get sick, it’s always your own doing, the state of one’s immune system is always within one’s own prerogative, in some way. A woman explains that she was molested, another woman blames herself for the illness of her child, another is a drug addict. Carol declines to answer. Although the film doesn’t explicitly reference it, it is widely regarded as a potent commentary on the AIDS epidemic. The mirrored sentiments and context are undeniable, especially here.
In the ending scene, a man in the group walks Carol home and they seem to be flirting. Camera fades out as she is sitting on a beige cot, connected to her oxygen machine, in an insulated igloo of a cabin where she now lives. I have lots of questions. Is the only way to escape one extremity by embracing another? Is a woman destroyed also a woman liberated? Or the reverse? Did the people founding these sorts of communities plant essential seeds in important conversations or did they end up wearing tinfoil hats? What was Haynes’ mother like?
The nuance and artistry with which Haynes explores Carol’s character and her illness take the film through so many complicated and important cultural themes. Safe is a remarkable commentary on not only gender roles, but also on consumerism, the AIDS epidemic, environmental toxicity, discrimination within the medical establishment, spirituality, and mental illness. This is Haynes’ gift. He spins together characters, stories, and worlds which explore social dichotomies and their marginalized victims so comprehensively and poetically. Julianne Moore made a short and sweet zoom appearance after the screening. She says, “I feel so grateful that this person who is such an amazing auteur- such an incredible storyteller, an incredible intellectual, someone who captures culture so beautifully- has chosen me five times to work with. I feel incredibly grateful.”