Thursday, January 24, 2013

...and All is Well in Our World

Film: Safe
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Julianne Moore loves her vagina. I say this based solely on the number of times I have seen her reveal it in films. The difference between the Mona Lisa and Moore’s mons pubis is that not everyone has seen the Mona Lisa. I half believe that rather than shaking hands with a new person, Moore just pulls up her skirt and offers the goods with a murmured, “There’s a little Moore down here, too.”

That said, it’s something of a surprise that Safe, which features women’s locker rooms, aerobics classes, doctors’ offices, and hospital gowns fails to have Ms. Moore going out in a blaze of glory by displaying her personal blaze of glory. Seriously, if any film past Boogie Nights contained the potential for frontal nudity, it was this one. Safe, as it turns out, is the closest thing I’ve seen to a horror movie that contains no specific horror. A nudge or two in one direction would put this firmly into the camp of terror-inducing thriller.

Carol White (Moore) is the stereotypical wealthy housewife of the mid-1980s. She spends her time lunching with friends, going to aerobics classes, and telling her help what to do. A serious problem for her is discovering that the new couch she ordered has arrived in the wrong color. She doesn’t work, and despite calling herself a homemaker, does very little in the sense of creating a home. She is indolent, bored, and dull. There’s also a real sense of her being not unintelligent, but uninformed and apathetic as long has her world is unaffected. Her husband Greg (that-guy Xander Berkeley) and stepson (Chauncey Leopardi) are both the center of her world and somehow detached from her. Carol lives in her own world of suburban California malaise.

And then she starts getting sick. At first, it’s little things like a coughing fit when stuck behind an exhaust-pumping truck in traffic. Then it becomes unexplainable, like a sudden nosebleed while getting a perm or reactions to someone’s cologne or hairspray. Psychiatry reveals nothing, and batteries of tests only demonstrate a sensitivity to milk, which she drinks by the gallon through the course of the film. Eventually, she collapses while at the dry cleaner when the place is being fumigated. With no formal diagnosis from her doctors, Carol decides that she has Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.

The reactions around her are about what would be expected. Her friends demonstrate concern for her, but also talk about her behind her back. There’s a sense that they see her as a drama queen. Her husband wants to be concerned for her health, but also doesn’t understand what she is going through or really have a great deal of sympathy. Eventually, Carol discovers Wrenwood, a sort of health commune in the middle of the desert, away from all of the toxic chemicals and fumes she encounters in her regular world. Wrenwood is a sidestep away from being a religious cult. And as she moves into this new world, separate from her family, her world changes into obsession of her own health and well-being.

There’s a lot going on here, and director Todd Haynes is smart enough to let it happen in front of us without making much comment on it or steering us specifically in one direction with the material presented. He does give us the perfect environment to channel our thoughts, though, but leaves the interpretation completely open. First, while Safe is almost purely a drama, it is presented with the soundtrack of a horror movie. The soundtrack is frequently low, extended notes that seem to gather tension in them. In another film, such ambient tones would suggest something about to pop out of the trees at any moment. Second, Haynes is devilish with his use of the camera. We frequently see scenes at distance, with the human figures small. An early scene shows Carol at the door of a friend’s house, but the scene is really just the house—Carol is almost invisible. In a real sense, the environment itself is a character, and frequently Haynes wants as much of that character on the screen, even if (or more accurately, especially if) it reduces Carol’s size in the frame to something almost insignificant. He also moves the camera only slightly when he moves it at all. These long takes, slow pans, distant shots, and low droning tones all combine to make Safe’s title ironic. There’s no sense of safety here, no place of security.

So the real question is what’s going on with Carol. Haynes is smart enough to offer up several possibilities and smarter to leave them all open. It’s entirely possible that everything Carol is experiencing is real and that her MCS is legitimate. It’s possible, but I think it’s also the least likely possibility. It’s also possible that Carol is in the beginning stages of something like AIDS. Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), who runs Wrenwood is an AIDS patient, though, so this might just be a red herring.

What seems to work for me as a reason for everything is that all of this is in Carol’s head. It doesn’t explain the nosebleed, but it could account for pretty much everything else she goes through, even the collapse at the dry cleaners. But why? Because it makes her special. Carol’s life is a bland world of lunches and aerobics classes, and a sudden, unexplainable, Munchausen-like, unspecified set of illnesses makes her special. It means everyone has to pay attention to her and feel pity for her and that things need to be done for her. It gives her meaning and purpose.

It’s purely evident why this film grossed far less than $1 million—it is unsettling in an unsettling way. This is not the fun rollercoaster of a horror film with a wisecracking slasher and nubile nudity. It is horrific in a different way, the sort of experience that makes the audience question every sneeze and cough, that sets the skin to itching. It’s also evident why it was chosen to be on The List in the first place. Here’s a hint; it’s for the same reasons.

As a final note, I loved seeing Jessica Harper pop up here as another patient at Wrenwood. She still looks a little like Karen Allen.

Why to watch Safe: A horror movie without the horror part.
Why not to watch: You’ll itch for a few days.


  1. This is probably the most unsettling movie I've ever seen. Like you said, the sound and camerawork feel like something out of a horror movie and make this film very uneasy.

    I like that the film is open, that you can take your own interpretation and run with it. Unlike you, I'm of the mind that she's actually sick. The film was inspired by the fact that there were cases of this time getting inexplicable reactions that were later deemed part of a sort of chemical sickness, people unable to tolerate the various artificial everyday cleaners and cosmetic products that were heavily introduced during this time.

    Part of this is personal, because I do have reactions to certain chemicals. Potent perfumes, lysol and most hand sanitizers will make my sinuses flair up, so I don't think it's a stretch for someone to get sick from this kind of thing.

    1. I think that's an entirely fair interpretation of where Haynes takes us. For me, though, since a good portion of her time at Wrenwood is spent in group therapy sessions talking about why they got sick, with almost every answer being, "I made myself sick." That, more than anything, is the reason I took this in a different way.

  2. First, thanks for reminding me that I need to submit this review, like, now to Squish.

    Second of all, was Jessica Harper the girl from Suspiria?

    Next, I had the exact same interpretation of the film as you. I think Carol is bored, even if she can't admit that she's bored. Her life is too small. Being sick gives her something to do, for lack of a better phrase. BUT I also agree with you that this is my distinct *interpretation* and that's a credit to Haynes for how even-handed he is in his presentation.

    I also noticed the horror feel of this film. For me, it's not quite a full-fledged horror film. I was fascinated, but never in a grotesque or uncomfortable way.

    Nice review. I said many similar things, hee hee.

    1. And now that you mention it, I need to go back and read your review of this. I was saving that until I'd watched the film.

      Jessica Harper is the girl from Suspiria. In Safe, she's the woman at Wrenwood who is lying head-to-head with Carol when they are talking about rooms they had as a child. I think her name is Joan here.

      I think our interpretations are a little different, too. I don't think she's specifically bored. I think she feels unimportant and/or detached from everything. Sickness makes her the center of things. It makes people focus on her, and when they don't (her husband, for instance, is initially supportive, but you can tell he thinks she's crazy), she goes somewhere where she can be the focus. It's no mistake that when she's at health retreat, she seems to worsen and thus gets more and more attention put on her. So I don't think it's boredom--I think it's control.

    2. Fair point. I just see Carol more as a lost lamb who latches onto the sick thing because she has nothing to latch onto. I absolutely refrained from writing this in my own blog entry, but my mother in law has kind of a similar story to Carol's. as soon as she became an empty nester, she became a weeeeeeeee bit crazy, and in my opinion, it was because she was a SAHM who suddenly had no children to look after. She's obsessed with her (what I will call) 'hobby' because she doesn't know what else to do. She's a very nice woman, but I'm sorry, I do not buy that crystals have magical healing powers or that she is capable of channeling Jesus, who, according to her, was actually named Sinanda. Obsessed. Stemming directly from a feeling of disconnect like Carol. so my personal experiences/opinions completely color how I interpret Carol's journey.

      The control idea works too, though. I can see that.

  3. Julianne Moore doesn't show any cooter in "Boogie Nights," does she? There might have been a bit of boobage, yes, but I don't recall catching a glimpse of her Red Vadge of Courage. Marky Mark's rainbow-firing unicorn horn was front and center at the end, though. Thank God the movie wasn't filmed in 3D.

    1. My memory could be off, but I'm pretty sure she does in the initial sex scene with Marky Mark. She absolutely does in Short Cuts, where she walks about pantsless for a few minutes.