Safe begins with a journey home, an eerie glide through a frictionless world. From inside a black Mercedes, beneath a deep blue dusk sky, we move past the manicured lawns and iridescent street lamps of a moneyed suburb in the San Fernando Valley. The swelling synthesizer hum on the soundtrack gives this traveling shot a science fiction sheen, the sense of traversing an alien landscape. The mood is ominous, even funereal, and our destination, which lies behind a sliding electric gate, is a mansion as welcoming as a mausoleum. The film’s protagonist, Carol White, steps out of the car into her garage and sneezes, a portent of maladies to come. The first words from her mouth are a complaint that sounds like an apology: “It’s freezing in here.” Toward the end of Safe, Carol is again heading home, this time hundreds of miles away, in the still of the New Mexico desert. Home is no longer a faux Tudor behemoth but her very own windowless porcelain dome, where she has retreated, oxygen tank in tow, in a bid to stave off the ambient contaminants that may be making her sick. The first home is opulent, the second one spartan; both are designed to keep out the world, safe havens that are also prisons of the self.
An existential horror movie in which the monster is both all around us and nowhere to be seen, Safe (1995) marked a turning point in the career of Todd Haynes, who came to notoriety with the forty-three-minute cult hit Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), an unauthorized account of Karen Carpenter’s losing battle with anorexia, shot in Super 8 and starring a cast of Barbie dolls. A graduate of Brown University who majored in art and semiotics in the heyday of postmodernist deconstruction, and an ACT UP activist at the height of the AIDS crisis, Haynes sparked controversy again with his first feature, Poison (1991), a Genet-inspired triptych of stories about transgression and stigma that won prizes at Sundance, jump-started what came to be known as the New Queer Cinema, and, thanks to a completion grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, became a lightning rod in the culture wars of the 1990s. Safe, starring Julianne Moore, at the time emerging into major stardom, moved Haynes beyond the role of troublemaking iconoclast. The American independent film scene of the nineties, fueled by the Sundance boom, was a hotbed of crossover ambition. Unlike most of his peers, though, Haynes sought not to be assimilated into the mainstream but to infiltrate it. In the two decades since, he has carved out a continually surprising and somewhat improbable career smuggling ideas from critical theory into off-Hollywood entertainments. Using the vernacular of mass culture against itself, his movies are queer not necessarily in content but certainly in form.
Superstar encapsulates the two types of films we have come to associate with Haynes: essayistic anti-biopics of pop icons and cerebral riffs on the melodramatic genre that Hollywood used to call women’s pictures (and he himself has termed “stories about women in houses”). Whether they fit the former category (1998’s Velvet Goldmine, his glam-rock fantasia about a David Bowie–like singer; I’m Not There, from 2007, which uses a revolving door of actors to trace the shifting personae of Bob Dylan) or the latter (Safe; the 2002 Douglas Sirk pastiche Far from Heaven; the 2011 miniseries Mildred Pierce, which removes the noir trappings of the Joan Crawford vehicle and reinstates the class conflicts of James M. Cain’s Depression-era novel), all his films revolve around the mysteries and traps of identity, calling attention to the social and cultural processes through which it is constructed. Elusive by design, the typical Haynes protagonist is a blank slate, a vessel for meaning; sometimes this means a shape-shifting trickster figure, as with his Dylan and Bowie surrogates, and sometimes, as in the case of Safe, it means a person who seems barely to exist. (The film could just as well have been called I’m Not There.)
Pale, frail Carol White, with her girlish squeak of a voice, can barely complete a sentence. Every utterance, in her meek Valley upspeak, registers as a question, or an admission of her own uncertain place in the world. Self-effacing to the point of invisibility, she appears to be on the verge of paralysis at all times, not least during sex, as she lies motionless under her grunting husband, Greg (Xander Berkeley). She has no discernible maternal bond with her stepson, Rory, and speaks to her Latina maid, Fulvia, like a beseeching child (asking for “some leche, por favor”). The most routine attempts at small talk—in the gym locker room, at a baby shower, with the dry cleaner—turn into minefields of fraught silences. Haynes has acknowledged the influence of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman’s radically minimalist 1975 portrait of female domesticity coming undone, and like Akerman’s masterpiece, Safe presents its affectless heroine in a series of precisely composed long takes. Safe is less rigorous in its use of duration, but some of its framing choices are even more extreme: the director of photography, Alex Nepomniaschy, emphasizes Carol’s alienation by stranding her in cavernous interiors and on the margins of wide shots. But if Jeanne Dielman encourages us to read its heroine’s regimented routine as a defense against her own anxiety and anger, Safe declines to divulge the contents of Carol’s inner life. We are unsure that she even has one. This possible deficiency is only underscored when a shrink tells her that he is there to find out “what’s going on in you.” Carol is, to borrow from the parlance of semiotics, truly an empty signifier.
Filled with signs yet purposefully lacking in signposts, Safe encourages close reading. Confronting a void of a protagonist, viewers are compelled to fill in the gaps—often literally. (In an early scene, Carol visits a friend who tells her about a recent loss, in an exchange that consists entirely of coded ellipses; we surmise it was of her brother, or half brother, and the women skirt around the dead man’s sexuality and cause of death, without once saying what’s on their minds or mentioning the word gay or AIDS.) Both for her and for us, Carol eventually begins to take shape through the symptoms of an inexplicable ailment. Freeway exhaust leaves her choking; a perm induces a nosebleed; her husband’s deodorant makes her retch (or is it him?). The family physician insists that there is nothing physically wrong with her; an allergist is similarly stumped as to what could be triggering such acute reactions. The men around Carol, including Greg, all but declare this a case of female hysteria, insinuating that whatever ails her is in her head. An alternate answer emerges when she spots a flier at the gym that reads: “Do you smell fumes? Are you allergic to the twentieth century?” Through support groups, she learns of something called multiple chemical sensitivity, or environmental illness, a disease that even in its name asks to be read metaphorically.
Haynes has a reputation as a brainy conceptualist, but what often goes unremarked is his skill as a social critic and historian. Most of his films are sharply attuned to the larger cultural forces at work in specific eras: the New Deal thirties in Mildred Pierce, the Eisenhower fifties in Far from Heaven. Pointedly set in 1987, deep in the trough of the Reagan-Bush years, Safe exposes the logic of New Age doctrine—its cult of self, its notion of salvation as a commodity—and the conditions that foster it. The environment that ails Carol harbors not just sundry chemical agents but also an undercurrent of fear and an inchoate hunger for redemption: talk-radio rants, droning TV infomercials, the chatter at her aerobics class about “emotional maintenance.” In this doomsday atmosphere, Carol finds her way to an illusory promised land in the desert, a retreat called Wrenwood run by a self-helpguru,Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman). As a “chemically sensitive person with AIDS,” Peter has an “incredibly vast” perspective, one of his acolytes tells Carol. Where the doctors questioned the existence of her sickness, Wrenwood affirms it and, in so doing, validates her. But it also instills a poisonously mixed message: even if the chemicals are making her sick, the cause lies within. The cure is a regimen of self-improvement that sounds an awful lot like self-blame. “The only person who can make you sick is you,” Peter tells his charges, more or less quoting from The AIDS Book: Creating a Positive Approach, one of several best sellers by New Age empress Louise Hay, who made a fortune in the eighties and nineties stumping for positive thinking as a miracle panacea.
For many of its initial viewers, Safe proved as resistant to diagnosis as Carol’s ailment. The film’s signal attribute is its deadpan ambiguity. Its perspective shifts imperceptibly between satirical and empathetic; comedy and horror mingle in unpredictable ratios. The meticulous script and direction, and Moore’s brilliantly restrained performance, leave open the possibility that Carol’s condition has both a physical basis and a psychological dimension. The movie functions in part as an AIDS allegory, dealing as it does with an immune-system disease and the New Age thinking that many with chronic illnesses embraced in the eighties and nineties, often as an alternative to the dead ends of conventional medicine. But Haynes refuses to make Safe simply a film about AIDS, and his sidelong approach, hardly a result of skittishness, allows him to scrutinize his most provocative themes—the stories we tell ourselves about sickness, the need for control even if it is an illusion, the perverse comfort of culpability—beyond the trap of identity politics.
Safe takes the linear, inspirational trajectory of the medical case-history movie—a triumph over odds or a coming to terms—and bends it into a circle, two mirrored halves, moving Carol from one controlled environment to another, both dominated by patriarchal figures who tell her, albeit in very different ways, that she made herself sick. Haynes has noted that if there is any hope in Safe, it can be found at the film’s midpoint. The revolt of her body forces Carol into some semblance of an examined life, possibly for the first time. But the potential for an awakening is short-lived. From Carol’s vantage point, the most persuasive rhetoric of recovery—the safest path—takes the form of a retreat, in more than one sense.
A film about an inarticulate woman with an indeterminate condition, Safe is concerned, among other things, with the dangers and difficulties of naming. Carol could be said to suffer from a particularly enervating version of what Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique, famously called “the problem that has no name.” Multiple chemical sensitivity has a contentious status within the medical establishment; a skeptical toxicologist described it in the early nineties as “a name in search of a disease.” If sickness gives Carol an identity, Wrenwood teaches her a language. “I’m still learning, you know, the words,” she tells Peter apologetically. But try as she might, she can’t master the New Age lingo. Asked to give a speech at a communal meal, she blurts out an incoherent stream of regurgitated platitudes: “I really hated myself before I came here . . . I’m trying to see myself, hopefully, more as I am, more, um, more positive, like seeing the pluses?”
Is Carol’s failure to internalize the tenets of self-help another symptom of unconscious resistance or another sign of her terminal blankness? The film ends with her alone in her barren igloo cocoon, an increasingly prominent red blotch on her forehead, still trying to learn the words. “I love you,” she whispers to herself in the mirror. “I really love you.” Safe was so out of step with the positivity of the times—the very thing it sought to condemn and undermine—that some reviewers chose to interpret this as a hopeful conclusion. Viewing it today, there is no mistaking the movie for anything other than a tragedy. Its pessimism—its flat-out rejection of the false logic of happy endings—is a measure both of its anger and its compassion. Haynes, who engendered sympathy for a Barbie doll in Superstar, pulls off an equivalent sleight of hand here. For much of the movie, Carol is at a distance, practically on the threshold of visibility—an impassive Stepford cipher in danger of being swallowed up by her environment. The final shot grants her a rare close-up, in which she directly faces the camera, and the audience. She’s looking into a mirror, and we may be as well, at a reflection of our most vulnerable selves.