Genevieve Yue on Safe

From its ominous opening shot of a car entering a gated community in the San Fernando Valley, its headlights looming around darkened, perfectly manicured lawns, Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995) would appear to be one more entry in the bloated canon of films exploring suburban malaise, a setting that was especially popular in the mid to late nineties. But against the predictable drudgery of Sam Mendes's American Beauty or Gary Ross's Pleasantville, Safe's take on suburban life is bleak in a subtler, more existential way as it offers its heroine Carol White (Julianne Moore) no means of escape. The brackets that enclose the film’s title in its credit sequence and poster design reinforce the sense of enclosure provided in the first and last scenes: in the former, the black Mercedes pulls into a garage whose door closes behind it; in the latter, by this time living at a New Age retreat in a stretch of New Mexico desert that looks uncannily like southern California, Carol shuts herself in a hermetic, porcelain-lined igloo. Suburbia in Safe is a pastel-hued prison that Carol, the self-described homemaker, makes for herself, and despite the army of servants that refinish the cabinets and fetch her a glass of milk, the upkeep of her wealthy ranch house is, as she confesses tentatively, stressing her out.

When two black couches are delivered to her home early in the film, Carol’s stricken look, a reaction that could play as mean-spirited gimmick in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, registers as perfectly appropriate. We see her face first, her mouth dropped to utter a low “Oh my God.” The camera cuts to the couches set up in the corner, their black aggressively out of place in a house otherwise full of iridescent baubles, pink and teal ruffles, and, perhaps owing to her name, a plethora of white. Carol later protests to the furniture store clerk, who insists that black was on the original order, “That’s impossible because it doesn’t go with anything we have.” And she’s right. The couch doesn’t match her house, which is to say it doesn’t match her: pale, delicate, and self-effacing to the point that she practically disappears into the drapery. With her pink clothes and porcelain skin, Carol blends into her surroundings like a suburbanite chameleon, an expensive, mid-eighties accessory among many, or an Ibsenesque doll made to be seen and, as she stutters and stumbles through most of her dialogue, determinedly not heard.

Soon after the couches’ appearance, Carol’s health begins to deteriorate. The next morning she trips (a clue as slight as the falter that signals the elderly Shukichi’s decline in Tokyo Story) when issuing the day’s orders to Fulvia, her maid. Later, stopped in rush hour traffic, she begins coughing uncontrollably, a fit that sends her careening down endless spirals of a parking garage until she screeches to a halt, opens the car door, and heaves over her lap. Her nose spouts blood after she receives a perm, she vomits after embracing her freshly hair-sprayed and deodorized husband, Greg (Xander Berkeley), and a trip to the cleaners sends her into an epileptic fit. Her husband, doctor, and psychiatrist—all men—contend there’s nothing wrong, and, by force of habit perhaps, she eases their tepid concern with faint and recurrent assurances that she’s “fine.”

Things begin to change once Carol is able to put a name to her malady: environmental illness, a new or newly identified condition, or what a flyer at the health club calls an allergy to the twentieth century. She checks herself into the Wrenwood Center to begin a cleansing regimen of dietary, social, and sexual restriction, bolstered by New Age self-help platitudes, to reduce her “load” and become what the center (and Scientologists) call “clear.” Led by the charismatic Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), described gushingly by one resident as “a chemically sensitive person living with AIDS,” Wrenwood is both a rehabilitation facility and a vaguely cultish compound that insists on the healing power of self-love, though its restorative effects are dubious at best. In addition to the surly Nell, who becomes more recalcitrant after the death and implied suicide of her husband, there’s Lester, an eerie, isolated figure who paces haltingly around the compound’s perimeter wearing a beekeeper’s helmet. Carol, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to get any better. Though in her letters she assures her family she’s improving, she’s rarely seen without a small green oxygen tank trailing behind her, and she later develops a large lesion on her already blotchy face. After confessing to Wrenwood’s director, Claire (Kate McGregor Stewart), her desire to relocate to a cabin that isn’t so close to the road, she retreats further, moving into the enclosed safe house recently vacated by Nell’s husband.

Though Carol describes the replacement teal couches as “totally toxic,” it’s the black ones that trigger her descent. While it’s conceivable their affront was chemical in nature, the film’s mise-en-scène suggests that the shock of their color, their literal darkness, also marred the order of Carol’s pastel, placid life. In the following scene, visible blemish and invisible vapors come together when Carol coughs in response to a cloud of black smoke belching from the exhaust of a truck. You begin to see things the way she does, as if the black opened her eyes to the dark, diseased underside to everything in her perfect world: close-ups of Greg applying spray deodorant, perming solution dripped into her tightly curled hair, rubber-masked figures spraying unknown chemicals at the cleaners, a flimsy plastic patio curtain that does little to screen the dirt and noise from the busy boulevard outside. One of Carol’s most acute and terrifying outbursts occurs at a baby shower: with a young girl sitting on her lap, Carol grows increasingly unsettled as the other women unwrap a giant gift. As the camera slowly pushes in, she trembles, her breath short, a pained expression growing over her still smiling face. The frightened girl hurriedly climbs off Carol’s knees and runs to her mother. Soon Carol is hyperventilating, and her floral-clad friends, in a home nearly identical to her own, watch with a mix of horror and concern, some of them rushing to her, but many keeping their distance on the other side of the room as if Carol’s condition were contagious. In this case, unlike the others, there’s no chemical, no substance, to set off Carol’s convulsions; instead, the film seems to suggest, it’s Carol’s own life, that of a dutiful suburban mother and housewife, that’s slowly killing her.

Did Carol really order the black couches? Did she harbor some secret rebellion, or was it a perhaps subconscious expression of her dissatisfaction that drove her to the color that didn’t match? A desire for something other, something else? The black couches are in many ways the opposite of the lilac scarf Cathy Whitaker, another housewife played by Moore, wears in Haynes’s Far from Heaven (2002), a diaphanous blush of color caught in the wind and retrieved by Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a man whose love she knows she can never pursue. There, the scarf is the only part of Cathy that can break free of the rigid life she’s built around herself, and it provides a symbol, an image of escape; the black couches of Safe, meanwhile, enact the force of revolt that causes Carol’s world to collapse upon her, to become utterly unfamiliar and hostile. “Oh God, what is this?” she whimpers in one moment of disorientation. “Where am I, right now?” Her husband attempts to soothe her. “We’re in our house. Greg and Carol’s house.” Could she have known the strange, devastating consequences that would follow from such a mundane task as ordering furniture? Or was her world already so skewed that the tasks of maintaining a home had become so freighted with the very meaning of security and stability?

The film’s static, frequently wide-shot constructions reinforce the fixity, the slick mid-eighties veneer, of the White residence, though its moody synth score by Ed Tomney—a deep, underwater bass layered with shimmering flourishes and long, unresolved tones, the sound equivalent of an ellipsis—suggests a pervasive darkness lurking just below the surface. It’s manifest in the eruptions of Carol’s body, the wheezing, the vomiting, and the nosebleeds that overtake her demure appearance, the inside turned out. This other, subterranean world isn’t limited to Carol, either. As many commentators have observed, the White of Carol’s name also refers to the white middle-class milieu of the Valley, a stark contrast to her stepson Rory’s report on gang violence of Los Angeles: “Today black and Chicano gangs are coming into the Valley,” he reads aloud at the dinner table, “in mostly white areas, more and more . . . ” As if Rory’s words were fiction or didn’t describe a place only miles away, Carol wonders with a detached lilt, “Why does it have to be so gory?”

While Haynes consulted environmental illness specialists during the making of Safe, it’s never clear whether Carol suffers a real, physical impairment or an equally devastating psychological one. The 1987 subtext of a spreading AIDS crisis, a disease also poorly understood at that time, emerges in trailed-off sentences and offhand remarks throughout the film, and the broader sense of shrouded menace has led many to consider the film as an allegory for the stigmatization of, and alienation felt by, those who suffered from the disease. Haynes treads the line between what Mary Ann Doane has observed as pathos and pathology, locating Carol’s illness in her head, as her male doctors condescendingly insist, as well as manifesting it on her body. Accordingly, Safe is disturbed by a visible blight accentuated by the film’s carefully arranged interiors, and an unlocatable dread that pervades each scene.

Safe was made partly as a critique of Louise Hay’s pop-psychological bestseller You Can Heal Your Life (1984), in which the author claims that loving oneself is sufficient to cure AIDS, and the dangerous consequences of New Age hermeticism in general. Peter’s last lecture takes a portentously inward view as he confesses he has stopped following the news, effectively shutting out the world: “I've heard the media gloom and doom, and I've seen their fatalistic, negative attitude, and I finally realized, I don't need it.” The enlightenment Wrenwood promises only leads to deeper isolation and enclosure, the atomization of each individual in tiny safe houses, their images solipsistically reflected in the mirror and parroting, as Carol does, the words “I love you, I really love you.” Another source, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), is mentioned obliquely, when Carol struggles to find words to describe her childhood bedroom. Lying head-to-head with another Wrenwood patient for this exercise, she strains to name any detail, finally coming up with yellow wallpaper. In Gilmore’s story, the submissive, Carol-like wife, prescribed a “rest cure” following “temporary nervous depression” by her doctor-husband, descends into madness during a stay at a country estate, all the while becoming fixated on the pattern of the yellow wallpaper lining her bedroom. The unnamed narrator, writing in her secret journal, comes to believe a woman “creeps” behind the patterns—creeping, perhaps, like Lester—but her desire to break free turns to breakdown. When it’s time for her to leave the house, she locks herself in the room, creeping and curling herself into the swirls of the pattern. The men who casually or professionally, medically or “holistically,” treat Carol, too, fail to understand what’s wrong with her, and she suffers the consequences of this modern-day hysteria (historically tied to the womb and later, in Freudian psychoanalysis, to the frailty of the woman’s psyche). Like Gilman’s protagonist, she shrinks into the smallest space that can contain her, that which offers a feeling of safety no matter how far removed: a sealed room, her own body, and the darkness—the black—of her increasingly inaccessible mind.

When Carol first discovers those black couches in her living room, George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around” plays softly in the background. As she waits on hold with the furniture company, casting anxious and irritated glances to Fulvia, Benson’s smooth and confident jazz fills the scene. He sings the part of a man pleading with a woman to stay, though he knows she’s already gone. “I remember when you used to be the talk of the town,” he croons, and the woman he’s describing could easily be Carol: pretty, perfect, a woman who, to the chagrin of her girlfriends, doesn’t even sweat. But something’s wrong, or something’s missing, and you can hear it in Carol’s reedy, unsteady voice, always drifting or turning up at the end of a sentence into a question that no one answers. Benson continues to plead, begging this woman to love him with every chorus. By song’s end, however, his silken bravado seems frayed, every repeated line a reminder of how she’s not listening, how she’s not even there.