We're Still Vulnerable: Todd Haynes's Safe in 2011
Todd Haynes's Safe, Culver City, Calif.: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 1994
Todd Haynes's Safe was shot in and around Los Angeles while the city was besieged with aftershocks from the Northridge earthquake (6.7 on the Richter scale). Highways had collapsed all over the city office buildings were in ruins, and damage to homes was widespread. This backdrop is probably not incidental to the film's tone. As a California native, what I remember about waiting for aftershocks is a menacing quiet. You don't know when they'll hit, but the earth and air around you change entirely when they do. Usually they're minor, but you never know when one might be devastating. You're vulnerable, and you know it. Haynes's Poison (1991) was stylized and confrontational, echoing the Act Up-Queer Nation chant, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it." Safe seems to murmur a different slogan with a broader we in mind: " We're vulnerable, we know it, and we'd better find a way to live with it." We're waiting for aftershocks. We're not safe.
When Haynes made Safe in 1994, he was still working with tiny budgets, Bill Clinton was in his first term, HIV was still generally understood as a death sentence, most people hadn't heard of chemical sensitivity disorder or Monica Lewinsky, and Julianne Moore was not yet a star. By the time he made his next film, Velvet Goldmine (1998), all that had changed. The world had changed. Watching Safe in 2011 is sort of like opening a time capsule. You knew it was there, but it manages to surprise you anyway.
Safe is a film in three acts. Act 1: The opening shot oí Safe looks at a suburban street from the point of view of a car - in reality, Haynes's parents' car moving up the street to their house. (Many of the films' locations are the homes of Haynes's southern California relatives.) Moore, who is in nearly every shot of the film, has yet to be introduced. The cars-eye view suggests a sterile suburb. The carparks, Carol White (Moore) gets out, and then we cut to her buried under her husband s limply thrusting body. She's the victim of bad sex. We know where we are: the suburbs. And we know what the problem is: suffocating suburban life. And suburban life suffocates because it fails to acknowledge vulnerability. Carol's body begins to revolt, attuning her immune system to the poisons of her environment. Her carpets, sofas, cleaning fluids - her husbands clothes - are making her sick. Act 2: Carol is energized by her disease and the community of fellow sufferers she finds through it. She comes to understand that she's "allergic to the twentieth century." Act 3: Carol finds Renwood, a creepy retreat in the California desert, which is supposedly free of toxins, brimming with oppressive New Age dogma that amounts to a simple message: If you're sick, it's your fault. In the arms of this cushioning community, Carol gets more and more frail. Her skin becomes papery and bruised. She shuffles around Renwood with an oxygen tank while her new community smiles at her as though she's finally found her place in the world. Safety, it turns out, is not just a myth. It will kill you.
"We all have a little Carol White in us," Haynes jokes in the commentary for the DVD release of the film. Carol wants to please; she doesn't want to be in anybody's way; but she wants a voice and some room in the world too. In that same commentary, Moore explains that to play Carol she spoke "above" her vocal chords, speaking without projecting. She conceived Carol's breathy speech to create the sense that her voice was "bodyless." As her friends and family respond with suspicion to her growing list of symptoms, it becomes clear that Carol's suburbs are a place where people eschew the idea that mind and body have anything to do with each other. Carol sees a physician and a psychiatrist, both of whom seem to be in the business of dislocating her mental life from her physiology. …