by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes
CAST: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman
MY RATING: 4/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 87% Certified Fresh
PLOT: An affluent but unexceptional homemaker in the suburbs develops multiple chemical sensitivity.
From Wikipedia: “Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)…is an unrecognized and controversial diagnosis characterized by chronic symptoms attributed to exposure to low levels of commonly used chemicals…Blinded clinical trials show that people with MCS react as often and as strongly to placebos as they do to chemical stimuli; the existence and severity of symptoms is seemingly related to perception that a chemical stimulus is present.”
I lead off with that because the disease showcased in Safe is utterly unknown to me. To me, it sounds like a fancy term for bad allergic reactions, but I’m not a pharmacologist, so there you go. I don’t mean to suggest it isn’t real, despite the blinded trials. For the people afflicted by it, their symptoms are real enough for them, so it’s good enough for me.
And yet, despite the fact that Carol (Julianne Moore), the protagonist of Safe, is clearly suffering from something – clinically, mentally, or otherwise – affecting her health in unusual ways…I simply didn’t care. Safe is one of those movies probably best discussed with a group so I can get opposing viewpoints, because mine is fairly negative. Apart from Julianne Moore’s effective performance, the movie is a well-photographed but ultimately confusing slog.
Carol is an affluent housewife – sorry, homemaker, she makes that correction herself in the film – whose days are filled with making sure the 2-piece sofa she and her husband ordered is the right color, tending to her rose garden, lunching with friends, baby showers, and Jazzercise (the film takes place in 1987). Her speaking voice sounds as if she’s internally apologizing for filling the gaps in conversations. Her relationship with her stepson isn’t the greatest, and the role of her husband (Xander Berkeley) seems to be little more than that of a breadwinner and baby-maker. Moore is a great actress, and in Safe she succeeds in making Carol a void, which is not an easy task. (I was sometimes reminded of Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day where his one goal as a butler was to make sure everyone forgot he was there.)
One day, Carol suffers a coughing fit after driving behind a dump truck that spews vast amounts of smoke. Later, she zones out at a dinner engagement with her husband’s clients. She has trouble breathing after drinking a glass of milk. She gets a spontaneous nosebleed after getting a salon perm. The way the movie and Carol’s character are constructed, I got the idea that her illness was directly related to her nearly crippling ennui. Actually, Carol reminded me of the main character in Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, that semi-obscure Belgian film that was recently named the best film of all time by Sight & Sound magazine. In both cases, a woman goes through the routine of everyday life while something percolates beneath the surface. Safe attacks the story directly while Jeanne Dielman takes the long, long, LONG way around the barn, but the principle is the same.
Carol sees her family doctor who pronounces her perfectly healthy, aside from her apparent reactions to chemicals. She starts wearing a mask when going outdoors. One day, she walks into her local dry cleaner’s wearing her mask before realizing the place is being fumigated for pests. She immediately falls to the floor with convulsions; blood suddenly appears in her mask.
So far, it’s looking like a “Disease-of-the-Week” Lifetime movie. Ah, but here’s where it gets sort of interesting. In a nearly throwaway line, it is revealed that the blood in Carol’s mask didn’t come from her lungs or her nose. Apparently, she bit her lip. No one can fathom why she bit her lip, least of all Carol herself. So, I’m thinking, “Okay, she’s really suffering, but it’s not from anything real. She bit her lip because she saw the exterminators and their masks and their sprayers and she needed to be sick.”
Mind you, despite the sensational nature of that plot description, the movie up to this point is slow as molasses. It seems to want to create a sense of creepiness or dread, but because I was pretty sure she wasn’t truly sick, based on the information provided in the story, it didn’t really grab me.
Eventually, Carol winds up at Wrenwood, a kind of “rehabilitation clinic” she saw in a commercial on TV. If the movie was weird and confusing before, it gets more so from here on out. Wrenwood is not so much a clinic as a metaphysical/holistic retreat. Its leader, Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), speaks to his patients/slash congregation with a curious message that can be distilled down to this: if you’re sick, it’s because your negative emotions – anger, fear, envy, etc. – have gotten the best of you and are affecting your immune system. In other words, it’s your fault. And to get better, you just have to be more positive.
This philosophy is insidious to the extreme. I have a friend right now who was just recently diagnosed with ALS, a disease for which there is no known cure, and which is invariably fatal. I wonder how he would respond if someone told him that, not only is this disease his fault, but he would get better if he would only be more positive. Pardon my French, but that’s a load of horseshit. ALS and cancer kill many thousands of people a day, no matter how positive their attitudes are. Are you telling me they died because they didn’t smile enough? Give me a break.
So, here Carol is, with this guy, and she listens to his orientation speech (which is followed by a musical duet right out of a stereotypical hippy commune from the late ‘60s), and she goes back to her cabin and cries her heart out. And I’m thinking, “Finally, she’s come to her senses. She realizes, like we the audience do, that this guy isn’t going to help her illness, imagined or not, because he’s a charlatan.”
But no! She buys into it. The movie keeps throwing these plot-related curveballs that made it difficult for me to understand what the filmmakers are getting at. I’ve read that Carol’s illness is a metaphor for AIDS. Okay, if that’s the case, what is Safe trying to say? That there’s no cure? What else is new? This movie was made in 1995, long after AIDS first invaded the cultural zeitgeist, and two years after the movie Philadelphia brought it into the cinematic mainstream.
But let’s say that is the message. Okay, let’s talk about how Safe delivers the message. Short answer: it doesn’t. At first, the movie would have you believe Carol’s illness is motivated by hysteria and not pharmacological. Then it isn’t. Then it is again. Then she finds a haven that might provide a cure. Then the haven turns out to be a fraud. But she goes along with it anyway. But then her condition seems to get even worse…
Safe wants to have it both ways. Maybe it’s a Rorschach test. Or maybe it’s more accurate to call it Schrodinger’s movie, where both solutions are equally possible, depending on who’s watching. Are there movies that can pull this off? Maybe you can list other examples besides 2001: A Space Odyssey, because I can’t. By the time the cryptic ending rolled around, my chains had been yanked so many times that I just didn’t care anymore. Carol is suffering from her illness, imagined or not, so it’s real to her. But if the movie isn’t going to come down either way, what is it actually saying? Having no perspective is worse than having one I disagree with.
Like I said, I need to watch this movie with other people, and we need to discuss it afterwards. Maybe other viewpoints will broaden my mind a little bit to grasp Safe’s message, whatever the heck it is. Viewed by itself in a vacuum, much like Carol herself, I was bored sick.
[P.S. The trailer for Safe is one of the most misleading trailers in film history, yet another in a long line of scenarios where a studio cuts the trailer for the movie they thought they’d get as opposed to the one they have. Watching it, you’d think you were in for another Outbreak. But, alas, no.]