Safe October 6, 2018
1 Hr., 59 Mins.
here was a time when Carol, the protagonist of Safe (1995), didn’t even sweat. We discover this early on in the movie, when Carol, after an aerobics class, is gawked at in the locker room for glowing rather than dripping. Then again, there was also a time when she didn’t really do anything at all. Years ago, Carol married an affluent and materialistic business type named Greg (Xander Berkeley), and became a stepmom, then a homemaker, in that order.
Ever since, day-to-day routines have varied little. She might go to lunch with “friends,” who sermonize on the cleansing wonders of a fruit-frontloaded diet. She might go to the spa, get her nails done, get her Hayworth-red hair permed. Complain to a furniture store who delivered coal-black couches when she specifically remembered ordering teal-colored ones. By night, she’ll eat just-fine pre-prepared meals, have unsatisfying sex, fall asleep in her comfy Egyptian-cottoned bed.
We see most of this during what we might refer to as a “before” period in Carol’s life. The splashy event which changes everything? Hard to pinpoint, I’d say — it’s a development that seems to have marinated. About a quarter of the way through Safe, Carol discovers that she has multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS. Medically tendentious, the ailment entails you be, without a hint of melodramatic wording, allergic to everything. If you drive with the windows rolled down, a whiff of truck exhaust will trigger a coughing fit so intense that you’ll have to pull over. Salon chemicals will cause nosebleeds. Stuffy-aired baby showers will incur mock asthma attacks.
What’s going on with Carol? Everyone wants to know. But she doesn’t know; we don’t know; her doctors don’t even really know. But what is known, eventually, is that no environment is quite so safe for the suddenly defenseless her; even an everyday life so protected and unruffled is dangerous. For the film’s second and final acts, Carol moves to Wrenwood, a desert-based, vaguely cultish “retreat” made up of people like her: individuals beleaguered with inexplicable illnesses that seem more linked to psychic well-being than bodily insecurity. Its leaders alternately pin the blame on the environment and the people paying for their services.
Safe, written and directed by Todd Haynes, is surprisingly surreptitious. Initially, it seems like a conventional sort of disease movie — a little The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976), a little Contagion (2011). But once it makes the transition from domestic drama to refuge-set nerve-wracker, it seems a cultural comment: both an incredulous reflection of the rise of New Age “treatment” as a relief for upper-class ennui, and a cold display of existential emptiness. The latter exhibition is the more powerful of the two.
It has been debated which unofficial part of Safe is superior. Both are necessary and gripping, I think: Holistically captured is a depiction of a life on the downturn. It is the first half which appeals to me more, though. Carol, so amorphous and devoid of personality, is, foundationally, prismatic. So to watch her spiral downward — in spite of doing nothing — helps augment an overarching idea that, because none of us have much predestinationary control, little of what we do will have any meaning, no matter if our regimens are exigent or Carol-level useless. Our heroine's sudden illness indicates a refusal to cater to the trappings of one’s fate: her body has essentially forced her out of a humdrum bourgeois life and laid out an alternate, more unpredictable route. Still trivial, but with more urgency.
Haynes’ ideas are always oblique. The narrative is nonchalantly spread out, though always with an eerie undertone, and we are thus goaded to search for meaning — something in accordance with Carol’s ultimately futile quest for answers. Safe’s preference for provocation over outright explication seems by turns exquisitely bold and maddening. It's never uninteresting, though. B+