The latest film by writer-director Todd Haynes (Poison, Dottie Gets Spanked) has barely earned a nickel in its limited theatrical engagements around the country, yet it's the canniest, most intriguing American film to be released so far this year.
The reasons for its box-office reception are not hard to fathom. Safe harkens back to classic work by the great spinners of celluloid enigma--Buuel, Antonioni, Fassbinder--which means that it lacks the charming dialogue overdose of The Brothers McMullen and the insider slapstick of Living in Oblivion.
In short, Safe is the kind of movie most major Hollywood distributors wouldn't touch, much less finance--enigmatic, challenging, at times deliberately obscure. It requires the kind of audience involvement that most big-budget directors would reject as sloppiness on the part of the filmmakers. Any questions you might have at the close of this sly, slow-paced feature are not the result of issues left unresolved by the writer-director, but of the slippery nature of its subject--a disease that some say doesn't exist. You'll wonder--is this a pretentious, "art-house" look at the banality of American upper-class materialism, a serious investigation of an environmental phenomenon that's only just come to a head in our chemical-choked culture, or a scathing satire of therapeutic cults that encourage narcissism as a form of healing? Haynes' chilling, visually spare fable is all that, and almost any other interpretation the intelligent viewer would like to offer.
Carol White (Julianne Moore from Nine Months) is the character at the center of the controversy, a sweet-tempered, smiley-faced California woman who feels she's been put on this earth to phone-order furniture, attend aerobics classes and baby showers, and have her hairstyle made over by the gals at the salon whenever she gets bored with herself. She lives in an enormous house in the San Fernando Valley with a somewhat neglectful husband (Xander Berkley) who encourages her sense of idleness.
Slowly at first, Carol finds herself suffering mild reactions she can't explain away--rashes, dizziness, nausea. As the symptoms become chronic, and more serious--fainting spells, uncontrolled fits of coughing, vomiting--her doctor is at a loss for a diagnosis, finally dismissing the symptoms as psychosomatic and sending her to a psychiatrist. Her husband grows more and more impatient with her mysterious condition, which only makes Carol worse. She soon equates her symptoms with an ailment advertised on the bulletin-board of the health club she frequents, and seeks the aid of specialists at an isolated retreat in New Mexico who promise they know how to treat her disease.
"Environmental illness"--it's a condition recognized by a minority of doctors, and hotly disputed by the rest of the American medical community. Those who acknowledge the syndrome define it as a deficiency of the immune system triggered by constant exposure to the gases, pesticides, industrial cleaners, and cosmetics that bombard us all daily as part of the urban experience. The treatment at the bucolic center called Wrenwood consists of a daily ritual of affirmations, group and individual activities, and rap sessions in which the patients are either retrained or brainwashed--depending on how you look at it--to root out the negativity in themselves and their daily lives and reject it.
Bottom line--the philosophy at Wrenwood is that people who don't love themselves enough will eventually cause their own sickness. The poster boy of the movement is Peter (Peter Friedman), a motivational speaker and counselor with an eerily beatific smile that never fades. Peter is HIV-positive, a man who has fashioned a life raft out of concepts like "positive energy" and "caring for the soul." He's adamant that he'll never allow himself to develop AIDS, and his own medical situation feeds the salvation fire he applies to the patients.
There's no familiar commercial cinema conventions to rely on here, no elaborate special effects or tension-relieving doses of entertainment by Todd Haynes featured here, yet Safe is very much a horror film, if only because it plows right to the heart of our current national mood of dread and deterioration. Stephen King has said the fundamental psychological principle exploited by all successful horror stories is fear of loss of control, and what Haynes pursues here is the most ambitious vision tackled by any filmmaker in recent memory. He turns the 20th century itself into the bogeyman under the bed, exploring the possibility that our bodies might one day revolt against not just the daily onslaught of technology but the alienation from ourselves and others that marks the end of the millennium in Western civilization.
Still, Haynes is skillful enough in developing the character of Carol (and Moore is haunting, with a bewildered, frightened-dove performance that's in perfect synch with the material) that you can make a strong case that she is responsible for getting sick, if only because she's retreated into a glossy, spirit-strangling world of no responsibility. Case in point--a brilliant baby shower sequence Haynes films like an outtake from the Bryan Forbes' 1975 camp classic The Stepford Wives. Surrounded by glass and steel furniture, organic colors and ultra-clean surfaces, Carol and her rich friends mill about nibbling finger foods and trading inanities. The superficial serenity is shattered by one of Carol's terrifying seizures, and as sympathetic as you are, you can't help but identify the episode as an involuntary lashing-out against her loneliness.
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The empathy Haynes expresses for his protagonist recalls the sad dignity he brought to singer Karen Carpenter's story in his first film Superstar (1988). If you haven't seen that completely original blend of black comedy and pathos, you'd better find a film fan who's got a dub copy, because it ain't gonna make it to your local video store any time soon. Both the estate of Carpenter and the Mattel corporation threatened legal action if Haynes didn't pull the film from circulation--he used Barbie-like dolls to dramatize the singer's slow descent into anorexia.
Both that film and Safe are about the traps we make for ourselves--the unfortunate human tendency to ignore or trivialize bad feelings. Haynes turned Carpenter into a plastic doll as a symbol of her own self-imposed exile from the pain in her life. Carol has done the same thing, and her body chafes against the effort.
Safe is a scary, fascinating riddle in which the audience must provide the answer for themselves. Just don't accuse Todd Haynes of ambiguity for its own sake--the layers of complex meaning that surround his film attest to the inscrutability of his profound themes, not some effort by the filmmaker to be "deep." The fact that he's asking you to do so much of the work indicates his respect for the intelligence of American moviegoing audiences. Safe is anything but--it's a deceptively mild-mannered peek at the chaos of identity.
Safe. Sony Pictures Classics. Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, James LeGros. Written and directed by Todd Haynes. Opens Sept 22 at the Inwood.