The Prescience and Power of Todd Haynes’ ‘Safe’

The important thing to remember about allegorical art is that it doesn’t always have to insist on a single reading — it can be analyzed, interpreted, and extrapolated many times over, from many different perspectives, and that benefit only grows with the passage of time. Todd Haynes’ Safe (out today, in a sharp new Blu-ray and DVD edition, from the Criterion Collection) is nearly 20 years old, and when it was released back in 1995, critics read it as metaphor for any number of maladies. Now, from a distance, Haynes’ target seems clearer, and the film all the more prescient: in many ways, Safe predicts both the insular nature of contemporary society, and the (counter-intuitive) disease of conformity that’s synonymous with it.

Haynes classified the picture as a horror movie, and he wasn’t just being arch; it plays like that, particularly in its first hour, which lacks gore or even any real “suspense,” but is disturbingly unnerving all the same. Carol White (Julianne Moore, tremendous) is a suburban homemaker, with a dull husband (Xander Berkeley) and a dull son and a house that’s all clean lines and minimalist décor. Haynes’ camera keeps a detached distance, seeing Carol and her world through a series of carefully arranged compositions, eavesdropping on her in elliptical, half-heard dialogue (“Was it…” she asks a friend, who responds “That’s what everyone…”).

Julianne Moore in "Safe"

But something is off about Carol’s world, foreshadowed by Ed Tomney’s unsettling music and Moore’s quietly troubled performance. She gets stuck behind a dump truck, and can’t stop choking on the exhaust. She goes in to get a perm, and ends up with a random nosebleed. She vomits out of nowhere; her skin gets paler; she has an attack of labored breathing at a birthday party and scares her friends. And Carol slowly becomes terrified of the world around her, of all the germs and chemicals and fumes, going further into herself — until she sees a flyer on a bulletin board. “Do you smell fumes?” it asks. “Are you allergic to the 20th century?”

The story is set in 1987, and many presumed it was a commentary on AIDS, though Haynes dismissed that reading — he’d been there, done that in his earlier Poison. (Frankly, I think he just wanted an excuse to create the ironic juxtaposition of all those terrible ‘80s pop songs playing on the radios and in the aerobics classes.) Around the time of its release, everyone was wincing and cringing in Ebola fear, which makes the film’s current reemergence extra timely (this, not Outbreak, is your true Ebola horror movie).

Of course, neither of those readings is as interesting — or as blatant — as that of WASP suburbanites fearing the encroachment of minorities. After all, this whole thing starts with the unwelcome arrival of a “totally toxic” black couch in Carol’s living room (they ordered teal — black “doesn’t go with anything”), which is soon followed by a kitchen-table scene of her son reading his report about how “black and Chicano gangs are coming into the Valleys, in mostly white areas, more and more.” This is not even a close reading — Carol’s last name is White, for heaven’s sake.

Julianne Moore in "Safe"

But those angles aren’t the ones that seem as relevant, from our current vantage point. It’s that group of like-minded “environmental illness” carriers that Carol goes off to the middle of nowhere to join. When listening to instructional tapes, she’s told, “the goal is to get clear,” and if the mirroring of Scientology language is an accident, I’d be very surprised. Once she’s insulated, she can complete her physical and mental breakdown, and be rebuilt by her newly adopted family; they’re the only ones who really understand her or her worldview. (Her husband and son’s visits are distant and awkward; they don’t make sense to her anymore.)

“What you are seeing outside is a reflection of what you feel within,” they’re told by their de facto guru Peter (Peter Dunning). “What I am seeing is a global transformation, identical to the transformation that I revel at, within.” That way of seeing — of viewing the world entirely through your specific prism, and gravitating towards those who feel the same — has been around forever, but as recently as 1995, it was still fringe behavior. In 2014, it’s a way of life, whether you’re Tea Partier, a Bircher, an InfoWars-er, an environmental terrorist, or a mainstream political party, and the Internet (still a luxury back in ’95) has only made it easier to find those who share your thinking, and assure you that you’re not alone.

And that’s what happens to Carol. They welcome her, they comfort her, they give her a birthday cake and sing “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” They listen to her wandering, aimless “speech,” and when it comes to a long, halting pause, they toast her. It’s only with their affirmation that she can provide her own, returning to her hermetically sealed chamber, looking at her ravaged face in the mirror, and telling it, “I love you. I really love you. I love you.”

Safe is out today on DVD and Blu-ray.