By Jed Mayer | Press Play April 16, 2013 at 8:35AM
Todd Haynes works well in a variety of genres, but his most distinctive films are those that were once described as “women’s pictures,” before the inane phrase “chick flick” gained currency. Widely recognized for his reverent tributes to the classic women’s picture, like Far From Heaven, and most recently his five-part HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, Haynes has also extended the possibilities of the genre by combining melodrama with horror. In Safe (1995), Haynes crafted an entirely unique take on the women’s picture that is also a scathing satire set in an imaginary 1980s California haunted by self-help gurus, deep ecologists, and toxic chemicals.
For all its originality, the film’s narrative owes much to the made-for-TV movies that once permeated the airwaves, films like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, The Best Little Girl in the World, and Brian’s Song that have been called “disease-of-the-week” movies for their morbid fascination with newsworthy illnesses. What makes Haynes’ use of the genre so effective is its constantly shifting narrative perspective and tone: as viewers we feel encouraged to laugh at the privileged San Fernando Valley characters and their “white people’s problems” one minute, fear for their health and sanity the next, and finally identify with their plights, however absurd they might appear. The woman at the center of this women’s picture is the appropriately named Carol White, played impeccably by Julianne Moore in her first starring role. Barely articulate, Carol is trapped in a world in which men tell all the stories, and she finds herself mercilessly shifted from one interpretation of her problems to the next.
I know the kind of narratives that Carol White is fed, having grown up in a house littered with self-help books. Though my family was relatively well off, had many friends, had reasonably happy and healthy kids, and anticipated a seemingly secure future, an examination of our bookshelves would have suggested otherwise. I’m Okay—You’re Okay, Games People Play, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?, When I Say No I Feel Guilty, and Love, by Leo Buscaglia, among others, were my mother’s daily reading. Sadly, after years of such fare, nobody in our family was “okay,” there were a lot of games played, no one told anyone else who they were, people said no frequently and apparently felt guilty about it, and there was relatively little love, at least of the touchy-feely bear-hug variety preached by Buscaglia. For the latter, however, I am actually grateful, since I always saw the games we played as another kind of love, however dysfunctional. After a while the self-help books became a family in-joke, and we laughed at the gap between their prescribed versions of happiness and the peculiar version our family had somehow created, despite all of the advice we’d been given.
What is so sinister about self-help narratives is the way they hold up a single answer to complex problems, a singularity belied by the multitude of books offering differing, even contradictory solutions. This is the plight of Carol White, who begins to suffer from what appears to be an allergic reaction to the toxins in her environment. A visit to the hair salon results in a nosebleed from the chemicals in her perm; a mid-afternoon commute sets off a coughing fit from automobile exhaust; a visit to the dry-cleaners puts her in the hospital. At one point an educational video tells her that she is suffering from the vaguely-defined “environmental illness: that means that, for reasons not yet known to us, certain people's natural tolerance to everyday substances is breaking down, usually as a result of some kind of chemical exposure.” Later she reads a flier that describes the disorder in more apocalyptic terms: “Are you allergic to the 20th century?”
Carol addresses her respiratory problems and chronic fatigue with a variety of fad diets and treatments until discovering “Wrenwood,” a retreat from the world’s illnesses run by HIV-positive self-help guru Peter Dunning. Though set in a bucolic desert valley compound ostensibly designed to help environmental illness sufferers reduce their “load” of twentieth-century toxins, Wrenwood’s residents are, in fact, overloaded with a variety of conflicting therapeutic narratives that cause Carol to unravel during her alleged healing process. Although many at Wrenwood tell stories of becoming sick from exposure to chemicals and unsafe environments, Dunning’s therapy ultimately shifts its focus from environmental to personal causes. In one disturbingly calm scene where he subtly badgers a recalcitrant patient to say what brought on her illness, he retorts: “The only person who can make you get sick is you, right? Whatever the sickness, if our immune system is damaged, it's because we have allowed it to be.”
Like most of the explanations given by the film’s various experts, this is perhaps true, but only partially. It might explain Carol’s illness, or it might not: maybe she is only suffering from an exaggerated sensitivity to her surroundings as a result of the boredom of her privileged existence, or maybe she does have a real physical reaction to a genuinely toxic environment. The ambiguous pathology of her illness is brilliantly encapsulated in the striking visual symbol of a black couch delivered by mistake in place of the teal one Carol ordered. After a morning at the gym, she returns to her immaculate home. The living room is shot with a wide, deep focus, similar to the interior shots of Kubrick’s The Shining. Recessed lighting lends a chilly, bluish light to the scene, a visual cold enhanced by the furniture’s rigidly symmetrical arrangement. After a phone conversation in which she describes each member of the family as being “fine,” the camera draws back slowly, creating suspense for the unveiling of what we can’t yet see lurking outside the frame. As Carol turns to the left she utters a horrified “Oh my god,” her gaze transfixed as the camera cuts to reveal an enormous black sectional couch, like an interior decorator’s version of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. For the privileged Carol White, this is as much an existential crisis as it is an aesthetic one, to such an extent that later in the film Carol claims to fellow sufferers of environmental illness that her “totally toxic” couch was one of the triggers of her own breakdown.
Throughout the film the nature of that breakdown remains ambiguous, but there is no shortage of narratives to fill that diagnostic void. Safe resembles other horror films focused on female protagonists, such as Rosemary’s Baby and the vastly-underrated Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, which dramatize the isolation that results when real terrors are written off as merely “women’s problems” by arrogantly authoritative men. In a conversation between Carol and other environmental illness sufferers, one victim says: “My doctor thinks I'm nuts. He thinks the whole thing is completely in my head. That's what my husband still thinks,” and this is what Carol, too, experiences for much of the film. But Safe’s brilliance lies in its acute understanding of the horror that can emerge when the male experts actually do start listening to you, offering what seem to be definitive solutions to complex problems. Another woman remarks: “It is in your head. It's in all our heads. It makes you crazy. She's right. It ends up in your head because it affects the neurological.” What “it” is remains unexplained, but the film subtly implies that it might be the cure itself, self-help rhetoric infecting the mind until all is reduced to a meaningless rhetoric of “feelings.”
Poignantly, Carol White never really discovers who she is or what her illness is. Every time she attempts to speak about herself, her words turn into clichés, self-help versions of selfhood that invariably miss the mark. The film ends in a tiny, space-capsule-like safe house where Carol has isolated herself. She stares at the mirror and tries to speak the words “I love you” with conviction, but fails, perhaps because the words are not her own, but merely quoted from the pages of I’m Okay—You’re Okay, or Love, by Leo Buscaglia, PhD.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.