Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 14, 2014)
Back in 1993, I attended grad school and I rented a room in a house near school and my part-time job. At one point during my 18-month stay there, a woman named Jennifer became an occupant. Jennifer was thin and frail, and she displayed a permanent “deer in the headlights” expression. Jennifer wore a surgeon’s mask most of the time due to “environmental allergies” she claimed to have.
These were news to my housemates and me but Jennifer stated that she experienced severe reactions to various chemicals that appeared in day-to-day life. However, it wasn’t just the unfamiliar nature of the allergies that made us doubtful. Frankly, Jennifer was such an unpleasant and self-absorbed person that it was difficult to sympathize with her; she presented such an out-of-kilter personality that we felt most - if not all - of her woes were mental, not physical.
Since that time, I’ve learned more information that supports the validity of these allergies, but there remains a certain level of uncertainty about the problems. 1995’s Safe came out not long after my experiences with Jennifer, and it takes a look at others who suffer from such maladies.
Set in California circa 1987, Safe focuses on meek housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore), an upper-middle-class woman who lives with her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) and stepson Rory (Chauncey Leopardi). Immediately we see that she’s barely connected to her existence; from the emotionless sex she has with Greg to the superficial and banal chats with her “friends”, Carol’s life comes across as little more than bland window-dressing.
However, she soon starts to develop an odd illness. Carol feels tired and headachy most of the time, and she gets nosebleeds at unusual times. Doctors provide no help, and psychiatrists also cannot discern a viable diagnosis; one claim of “stress” seems laughable given Carol’s lifeless existence. Eventually she learns of environmental illnesses, and she buys into this concept as the cause of her woes.
From there Carol becomes a more active personality, as her disease starts to define her. Various interventions fail to stem its tide, however, as Carol gets more and more ill. Eventually she decides to go to a special “camp” for environmentally sick people. Called Wrenwood, this New Age center purports to teach sufferers how to deal with their problems.
While some aspects of Carol’s stay seem positive - she actually focuses on emotions and thoughts for the first time in who knows how long - Carol’s illness doesn’t dissipate. If anything, it gets worse, as the Carol we see by the end of the film clearly looks to be in bad shape.
As he noted in the 2001 DVD’s production notes, writer/director Todd Haynes followed the standard TV movie formula for Safe, but the result seems quite different from the usual soppy melodrama. For one, Haynes tells the tale with a Kubrickian lack of sentiment. Stanley’s influence appears pervasive across Safe, from production design to photographic techniques.
However, it’s through the dispassionate distance Haynes keeps from the characters that Safe most resembles a Kubrick piece; the film never goes far to cross the boundaries that separate us from the participants, and we remain somewhat disconnected to them.
Actually, I should replace “them” with “her”, for Carol is really the film’s only substantial character. Almost all of the scenes feature Moore, and she remains the sole focal point; all of the personalities appear as little more than walk-on bits and they all seem very secondary.
Carol doesn’t receive a lot of exposition in the traditional sense. We learn little about her past, and what we do glean arrives through casual conversation. For example, we discover that Rory comes from Greg’s prior relationship. However, we don’t find out much about her life other than the superficial day-to-day aspects such as her struggle to get the correct couch delivered.
The absence of much nuance related to Carol’s existence isn’t a failing in the storytelling. It has to occur simply because Carol almost totally lacks any depth. She’s a bland personality who borders on a blank slate. Her life seems defined by her relationship to other people and things, and she appears to have few convictions or ideas.
This aspect of her character is what adds life to Safe because the way it combines with the newness of the environmental illness substantially muddies the waters. Carol isn’t some Terms Of Endearment-style feisty heroine who battles against a known disease. Instead, she’s a dull person who seems to almost enjoy her sickness. For the first time perhaps ever, Carol has a goal and a purpose, and she has something unusual to define her.
As such, Safe takes a wary viewpoint toward the illness itself that doesn’t seem different from the thoughts of my old housemates and myself. I never truly scoffed at the notion of the disease because I really didn’t know anything about it.
However, Jennifer came across as such a neurotic that it was awfully difficult to buy into most of it. One wanted to feel compassion for her, but she presented such a negative and passive-aggressive attitude that she made it exceedingly tough to care.
Safe captures these kinds of personalities neatly. It also refuses to clarify the veracity of the claims. At Wrenwood, no one ever seems to get any better, and Carol’s condition clearly deteriorates as she stays there.
This appears to support the notion that many of her concerns are mental. She finally finds a personality as a sick person, and she unconsciously delights in the attention this accords her. After so many years of invisibility, Carol’s disease makes her stand out as someone different.
However, I definitely wouldn’t call this a happy development. All Carol does is exchange one definition for another.
That said, the new one seems like progress since it puts her in a more active position; she’s actually doing something for once in her life. Unfortunately, the ultimate effect is negative since it provokes Carol to retreat further into her sickness.
I’d barely heard of Moore prior to Safe. I didn’t see the movie theatrically - actually, the 2001 DVD offered my first screening of it - but she received much praise for her performance, all of which she deserved. Carol really isn’t a showy role, but that’s why Moore’s work appears so special.
Moore creates such a believably timid personality without any excessive tendencies. Some actors can create “flamboyantly quiet” people, but Moore’s Carol remains realistic. She fully inhabits the character and helps make the film work.
Safe falls short of greatness, but it’s definitely an interesting and unusual film. It creates an odd sort of horror piece in which the villain is virtually inescapable, but it’s more interior and psychological in nature. The movie takes an admirably distant approach to its subject and leaves many conclusions up to the viewer, all of which makes it more effective.