The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents [Safe].
Julianne Moore is riveting in her first leading role as Carol White, a suburban housewife who begins exhibiting the symptoms of environmental illness. Timid and uncertain, White finds her body rejecting the socially and chemically induced artificiality of her San Fernando Valley life. When traditional medicine is unable to provide support and treatment to Carol’s diminishing health, she seeks assistance at Wrenwood, a new age facility devoted to treating immunity system deficiencies with its own set of rules and definitions. Todd Haynes’ [Safe] presents with Kubrickian detachment a dark and fearsome critique of consumer society and contemporary gender roles, as well as allegorical insight on gay existence in straight culture, particularly in the post-AIDS era. Mysterious, unforgiving, and devastating, [Safe] inverts the feel-good, “disease-of-the-week” TV movie format to become one of the great classics of 1990s cinema.
- New, restored digital transfer, supervised by director Todd Hanyes, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
- Audio commentary with Haynes, star Julianne Moore, and producer Christine Vachon
- White [Mater]ial, a new video piece by Amber Jacobs and Catherine Grant
- PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and urban theorist Mike Davis and Alison Maclean’s 1995 interview with Todd Haynes.
We’ll wrap up our month of highbrow horror proposals with a long-rumoured Criterion possibility – Todd Haynes’ [Safe]. This frequent candidate for the best film of the 1990s, about a housewife who develops multiple chemical sensitivity, was clearly seen by Haynes as a horror film, “but a completely latent horror film where every day life is the most frightening of all.” The film’s main character, Carol White (Julianne Moore), is the victim/monster produced by the deadening artificiality of middle class life in the San Fernando Valley of 1987. Carol goes through the motions of suburban happiness, going to the gym, picking up dry-cleaning and picking out furniture, and living in her spacious home with her husband, stepson, and a coterie of Hispanic staff led by her housekeeper Fulvia. Meek, hesitant, and thinly voiced, Carol politely tiptoes through her unassuming privilege until she begins exhibiting the symptoms of extensive environmental allergies – coughing, nosebleeds, vomiting, hyperventilating. Conventional medical authorities (doctors, psychiatrists) fail to identify any illness in Carol, suggesting that her ailments are psychosomatic. In response, she begins investigating the “deep ecology” movement, recognizing her disease as environmental allergies and eventually seeking refuge in Wrenwood, a new age facility for the treatment of immunity deficiencies. Carol is immersed in Wrenwood’s own therapeutic Newspeak which emphasizes a lack of self-love as the cause for its patients’ diseases, but she struggles to internalize its dogma and continues to physically deteriorate. By the film’s conclusion, Carol moves into one of Wrenwood’s small, porcelain-lined, igloo-like chambers, further isolating herself and repeating Wrenwood’s mantra of self-love.
[Safe] is most unnerving for Haynes’ refusal to definitely identify the cause of Carol’s ailments. While there is always a chemical or polluting agent present during Carol’s attacks (vehicle exhaust, aerosols, dry cleaning or hair-styling chemicals), there are also spiritual triggers (radio preachers sermonizing about the soul, children placing Carol in a maternal position, her husband seeking physical intimacy). One might expect that Wrenwood would allow Carol to detox and shed her chemical load, yet she continues to deteriorate, raising questions over whether she is becoming even more environmentally sensitive (the freeway is relatively close by, after all) or whether she is sickened by Wrenwood’s dogma just as she was by her middle class conformity. For Haynes, the question of Carol’s illness, whether chemical or psychic in origin, is something of a red herring, as each cause is cultural in origin and in its remedy, and neither can be isolated from the other.
Haynes, an openly gay artist himself, has commented that Carol’s illness can be read as comparable to the experience of homosexuality generally and of AIDS specifically, as the straight mainstream is similarly inhospitable to gays, healthy or ill. In his particular sights are damaging self-help gurus like Louise Hay, whom Haynes maintains encouraged a view in the late ’80s that disease was a product of a lack of self-love and that AIDS victims therefore made themselves sick. Interestingly, Haynes has maintained that [Safe] is a film on the side of the disease, rather than its cure. He subverts the “disease-of-the-week” format by denying Carol’s illness the credit of becoming an individualizing, personality-developing event, and, by doing so, creates an ambivalency in Carol. Initially, Carol appears to be the typical TV movie protagonist, unfulfilled in her daily life until her illness challenges her with its adversity and forces her to reevaluate her identity. She is the victim here and the drudgery of her soulless, plastic life is the monster that torments her. There is a brief window where Carol seems poised to get better and assume active agency in her own well-being, but the new age maxims of Wrenwood quickly fill the void in her, even if she is unable to fully internalize them and despite them being unable to reverse her still failing health. Carol transitions in the film’s second half from tragic victim to tragic monster, her leaking and discoloured frame becoming a form for abjection, her spiritual emptiness a persisting source of frustration. By the conclusion of [Safe], there is little hope for the disease, its cure, or its victim, and the complicated borders between these concepts leaves the film an unsettling experience.
Haynes’ films are highly rewarding treasures to film buffs. They often function as homages, pastiches, or genre-exercises, encouraging intertextual appreciations. Beyond the TV movie-of-the-week inspiration, Haynes acknowledges debts to Chantal Ackerman and to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). These influences are observed in his detached, observational approach, particularly felt in Haynes’ ability to minimize Carol against the architecture and environments that surround her. Julianne Moore’s performance as Carol is astonishing. She is underplayed with breathtaking fragility, hesitancy, and uncertainty. Carol is an antihero in the true sense, being without confidence, poorly spoken, and lacking the usual arc of personal growth. It is a nightmare vision of a “20th century illness” and the perfect place for Criterion to introduce Todd Haynes to its Collection (who oddly enough is a person with his own page on Criterion’s website, yet has no films listed thereon – perhaps a sign that some Haynes titles may be on the horizon?).
Taiwanese-American artist James Jean has always been our imagined choice for the cover and packaging designer to a potential Criterion Collection edition of [Safe]. Jean has an impressive client list, although he is probably best known for his covers to the comic series Fables. His work has a strong feminine character, smooth and lithe in its lines and tragically romantic in its sensibility, complimenting Haynes’ interest in women’s films. His art has an obviously sensual aspect, while also conveying something monstrous in his exaggerated and permeable physical forms. While clean and highly detailed in style, Jean’s work frequently employs surreal imagery to literally embody the concepts he interrogates, promising that Jean is capable of expressing Carol’s environmental and psychological ailments in a new and creative manner. Jean may have backed off of commercial work over the last few years, but hopefully the Collection could entice him to take on this project and produce something typically mind-blowing.
Credits: [Safe] has been the subject of numerous scholarly essays and texts. Those looking to immerse themselves in the theoretical significances of the film should investigate the Film Studies for Free site and its “Study of a Single Film: Todd Haynes’ [SAFE] (1995)” post. The commentary is a holdover from a prior edition of [Safe] (although my edition seems to lack this feature). Jacobs and Grant’s short video piece is an interesting analysis and an expanded version of White [Mater]ial would make a suitable companion to the film. Jonathan Rosenbaum is an easy choice for an essay contributor, being a frequent friend to the Collection and a fan of the film. Mike Davis’ infamous 1990 book on Southland architecture and identity, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, seems to compliment [Safe]’s critique of LA living and Davis would likely have his own insights on the toxicity of Haynes’ vision of the San Fernando Valley. Alison Maclean’s interview of Todd Haynes for BOMB magazine is perhaps the most frequently quoted work on the film and would be a key inclusion to a Criterion release of [Safe].