Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe—not only the writer-director’s finest work, but one of the best films of the past 30 years—is searing, prescient, and intimate. However, despite its potent emotional gravity, it’s not an entirely straight-faced film, but it’s also not quite a satire. Instead, it’s infused with subtle currents of camp and melodrama, which buttress rather than undermine its delicate and humane portrait of one woman’s inner psyche and its oblique exploration of the fear that undergirds modern social norms.
Walker Art Center
Saturday, November 14
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Todd Haynes
Producers: Christine Vachon, Lauren Zalaznick
Editor: James Lyons
Cinematographer: Alex Nepomniaschy
Music: Ed Tomney
Cast: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Dean Norris, Julie Burgess, Ronnie Farer, Jodie Markell, Susan Norman
Premiere: January 1995 - Sundance
US Theatrical Release: June 30, 1995
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The film’s protagonist is Carol White (Julianne Moore), a wealthy housewife in the San Fernando Valley in the late ’80s, drifting through a life of apathy and ennui papered over by occasional, slight, and mostly suppressed pleasure. Somewhere amid the fog of her day-to-day activities—arguing with a furniture store about her bungled order, attending aerobics class, gardening, running errands—Carol begins to develop strange and disturbing symptoms. She’s consumed with coughing fits to the point that it endangers her ability to drive; she’s plagued by headaches and fatigue; she suffers nosebleeds and vomits unexpectedly.
Her friends and especially her husband react with a mixture of confusion, concern, disbelief, and at times anger. Despite repeated visits, her doctor isn’t able to grasp what’s going on and eventually chalks Carol’s symptoms up to anxiety, but she struggles to open in up in therapy, ultimately finding little relief. Before too long, however, she falls into community of people who believe they’re suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a (real, and still quite controversial) syndrome attributed by its sufferers to the synthetic chemicals saturating our modern built environment—hence its sometimes derisive nickname, “Twentieth Century Disease.”
Carol’s blithe acceptance of this self-diagnosis seems to make her feel at ease, and even happy, but it does little to calm her worsening symptoms. In one climactic sequence, she collapses, convulsing, on the floor of her dry cleaners’. While recovering in the hospital, still bereft of any traditional medical explanation, an infomercial spurs her to move to New Mexico and isolate herself at Wrenwood, a remote New Age retreat aimed at providing respite for MCS suffers.
The scenes at Wrenwood are extraordinarily deft, as Haynes conveys a deep skepticism of the MCS movement—and of the motives of those monetizing it—without disrespecting his characters’ feelings and perceptions. In a miracle of storytelling, the tone of Safe’s final act is farcical, sinister, and tender all at once, and no easy solution is ever offered for Carol’s plight.
Haynes originally conceived of Safe as an allegorical encapsulation of and response to the AIDS epidemic, itself discussed or alluded to throughout the script. The contours of that intent can still be traced in both the film’s depiction of a mysterious ailment that disrupts the veneer of heterosexual monogamy and its portrayal of a social environment turned toxic towards those whose bodies have begun to fail and have therefore been marked in the public eye as deficient and deviant. A contemporary vantage, meanwhile, suggests another reading: it’s hard to watch the film in 2015 without immediately seeing early tremors of our present era’s own overwhelming health anxieties, including widespread concerns about food allergies and sensitivities, as well as the anti-vaccine movement.
Haynes’ film certainly encompasses these and many other specific interpretations, because it achieves a grander thematic resonance. It’s right there in the title: the film is a meditation on our society’s growing obsession with safety, in all its forms, and the walls we build around ourselves to create the sensation of it.
Haynes and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy carefully capture the colorful sterility of Carol’s rich Los Angeles bubble and the unforgiving but oddly welcoming desert landscape surrounding Wrenwood. As such, the film’s visual style mutes its dark undertow, mirroring the twin cocoons Carol finds herself protected within—the first being her dull and rote homemaker’s lifestyle as the film begins, and the other, the tapestry of pseudoscience and superstition she surrounds herself with after discovering the MCS community. As one façade of reality is punctured, another is built, and it’s unclear if the cycle ever ends. What feels like freedom—from pain, from illness, from sadness, from boredom—may well be another illusory trap.