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A Dolls House 

In Safe, a sterile suburban world turns poisonous

Wednesday, Jul 26 1995
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Her name is Carol White. She's a Southern California homemaker, a self-described "milkaholic," and the tragic centerpiece of Todd Haynes' brilliant new film, Safe. Before Carol (Julianne Moore) utters a line, Haynes telegraphs her illness and alienation. The first time we see her, she sneezes. Next, we watch her have sex with her husband. As he grunts and grinds, she mothers him with a kiss of vague distraction: Her body is beneath him, but her mind isn't in the room.

Early on in Safe, Carol has empty conversations with her mother and best friend. She exercises to Madonna at a health club. She asks her maid for a glass of "leche, por favor" and directs workers who deliver furniture to her palatial home. This sequence of (non)events is disrupted by an omen -- a couch arrives in black, not the teal Carol requested. Driving back from the furniture store, she gets trapped behind a truck spewing smoke. Coughing and choking, she turns off the road into a parking structure that spirals down and down.

"I wanted to make small aspects of everyday life seem larger, more frightening," a friendly Todd Haynes explains during a brief phone interview. True to form, in Safe, innocuous details of a housewife's existence become traumatic, an approach perfectly suited to the environmental illness that gradually takes over Carol's life. When her manicure and Baby Jane perm result in a mysterious nosebleed, we see close-ups of chemicals poured onto her head and nails. At a baby shower, Carol mouths niceties ("This cake is delicious"), but her voice quivers with fear, her heavily made-up face twitches in pain. Suddenly, she can't breathe; she tries desperately not to draw attention to herself, even as she's suffocating.

In suburbia, sickness makes Carol "not normal," seemingly "allergic to the 20th century." She can't keep up with the herd in aerobics class. Her friends and husband look at her funny; even her 10-year-old stepson talks down to her. A gynephobic medical joke at a dinner party sets up visits to a doctor and a psychiatrist who patronize Carol and/or dismiss her symptoms.

Eventually, this quest for wellness shifts from one air-conditioned nightmare to another: a New Age retreat named Wrenwood, led by a "chemically sensitive person with AIDS" who tells clients they are responsible for their sicknesses. At Wrenwood, personality is replaced by dronelike positivity and exercises ("Speaker No. 2, describe a room you remember having as a child"), and porcelain igloos provide the ultimate in safety and immunity. Yet Safe resists satire, revealing the wounds and cravings that draw people to cruel cure-yourself/blame-yourself philosophies: "The easiest approach would have been complete acceptance or complete dismissal," Haynes says, "so I tried to resist both."

Throughout Safe, language fails to convey experience. Carol and her friend Linda don't bond by chatting, but by dieting. Haynes' script captures the banality of conversation; in particular, the way 12-step terms have invaded people's vocabularies: "Are you having a reaction?" a Shakti Gawain type asks a weeping Carol at Wrenwood, before smothering her in hugs. So repressed it's heartbreaking, Carol stutters and stammers, rarely finishing the simplest sentences. Meanwhile, media and machinery endlessly, insidiously hum and buzz around her. ("They're another form of toxin seeping under Carol's doorways," notes Haynes.) In "living rooms" and at Wrenwood, people ask Carol how she feels, more out of obligation than caring. Her bland husband, Greg (Xander Berkeley), is friendliest when they're on the phone long-distance.

If Safe's script and sound (Ed Tomney's score communicates sadness and dread) are unconventional, its visual style is provocative. Cool, glossy colors and creepy, creeping middle-ground shots dominate the film, even during moments of crisis. This removed viewpoint is a rejection of manipulative Hollywood characterization. "In most contemporary films, every good or bad character is understood in blatant, overdetermined ways. You as a viewer have nothing to do; you're an automaton hooked up to movies that visually massage you," Haynes explains. "Safe asks people to fill in spaces and do a little more work than films today allow for."

However ambiguous, Safe's distant shots emphasize Carol's vulnerability; she's "by herself" in every scene, even when other people share the frame. The film's most wrenching moments are silent: Carol alone in the middle of the night, trying to find meaning in family pictures or her garden; an increasingly frail, sickly Carol staring at the isolated, windowless "safe house" to which she's drawn.

Carol's illness is a metaphor for another illness (AIDS), yet Safe "mainstreams" the disease subversively -- unlike Philadelphia or a TV movie, it doesn't turn death/recovery into catharsis. Titles like Poison and Safe and character names like Carol White show Haynes knows his semiotics, but his work is emotional. It doesn't matter whether Carol's ailment is psychosomatic or environmental: As with all of the director's films (the dollmation Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, the genre-blending Poison, the superb short Dottie Gets Spanked), Safe is about stigma, and the struggle to situate one's body/self in the world. At a time when urban life has its own soullessness, sophisticated critics who label Carol "hollow" have more in common with her than they realize.

Whereas the gay-boy outcasts in Haynes' other films manage some metaphoric escape -- they fly into the sky or bury their desires in the ground -- living-doll Carol (like Barbie-doll Karen Carpenter) is trapped, wasting away in a lily-white world. ("Melodramas are set in confined spaces, where there is no escape," says Haynes.) Safe evokes the restless, empty melancholy of suburban life. A film about a housewife, a film with no "action," a film that causes you to question the thoughts you think and the air you breathe, Safe might be box-office poison, but Todd Haynes' imagination and compassion shame the style-over-content sex-and-drugs cinema of trendier bad-boy auteurs.

Safe opens
Fri, July 28,
at the Bridge
in S.F. and the
Shattuck in
Berkeley.

About The Author

Johnny Ray Huston

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