Safe was Todd Haynes’ second major film, before his major success with Far From Heaven. Carol, played by Julianne Moore with a rare opacity, is a normal, affluent Los Angeles woman. She lunches with her friends, spends time planning her décor and cares for her step-son and husband. However, she soon becomes mysteriously ill and is convinced that it is the chemicals around her, the substance of modern life itself is making her violently ill. After a series of increasingly dangerous episodes, she sequesters herself in a remote, chemical-free community. It’s not an eventful film, but it builds intensity from an uncanny, non-specific anxiety that has probably kept it from developing a true cult following. Too unsettling and non-generic for true horror, too weird and unrelenting for fans of pure drama, it’s an oddity that might only be bearable once, but in the best way.
The film is shot on low-grade film but with professional skill and with a colour palette that is very washed out, only occasionally making use of the sickly neon greens and reds of Far From Heaven. Haynes’ makes a simple choice in framing his scenes in the early part of the film, favouring extreme wide shots where the characters are dwarfed in the expanse of their suburban homes. This perspective also prevents us from engaging with the characters too closely, but not in a dehumanising fashion so common among ‘serious’ filmmakers. The dialogue mirrors this detachment. Haynes only focuses on the most banal of conversations. There’s no great revelations, no rotten core that could explain away the illness in psychological terms. Carol is simply leading her life and becomes sick. We can’t scrutinise because there is nothing to see. Furthermore, it increases our sense of panic – we’re never allowed to look closely or understand the problem that faces Carol and we are also detached from helping her. We’re kept at arm’s lengths, as if behind a police cordon.
Of course, the film has overtones of the AIDS crisis, especially as it was first understood, as an uncertain but deadly killer. However, like all great works, it works on an allegorical level which makes it relatable to all modern epidemics. It’s like any number of films about infection (zombie films especially) except that the horror is never resolved or codified into a single source. One of the great mistakes of any horror film is to explain too much or give too much back story, show too much of the threat or leave too little to the viewer’s imagination. Safe, while showing worrying physical signs of pain, operates as an existential horror film. One of the great gifts of the film is involving the viewer in the drama, while offering very little characterisation of Carol. It’s Diagnosis: Ennui.
It’s also a brilliant satire on the self-help industry, in that it reveals the market decision: if you make sure everyone thinks they’re ill, then you can supply the cure. The course leader, Peter Dunning, carries the same ambiguity as all the characters in the film. He’s simultenously a svengali, ministering to the worried well and a distant money grabber, accusing the genuinely sick of their own personal failings making them sick.
There’s an ambivalence about whether the toxicity of everyday life is legitimate or not. In one shocking scene, Carol is shown up as she fails to laugh at a bawdy and tedious joke over dinner. Is she distant because of her illness or is her illness a sign of her rejection of the truly suffocating surroundings of middle-class contentment? Safe doesn’t bludgeon the viewer with a coruscating depiction of the vapidity of modern life. Instead, like the illness it depicts, it does something more insidious and lasting and creates an atmosphere where the images on screen contain the banality of everyday life, and in so doing, infect our lives beyond the last reel. A child spills stories of gang violence, friends advocate fruit diets, the wrong colour of sofa is delivered, baby showers arrive and pass and they are all symptoms of, and causes of the same feedback loop of illness.