Safe is one of the Best Films of the 1990s
It’s become a bit of a cliché to call Safe a horror film, a trend which may have begun with Wes Craven allegedly calling it the scariest film of 1995. Todd Haynes’ 1995 masterpiece is occasionally frightening and often disturbing, sometimes oppressively so, but it never quite tips over into the land of horror. Horror films require both the action and our emotions to reach a boiling point; Safe, on the other hand, operates at sub-zero temperatures. It’s an icy-cold peek into the daily existence of a woman with no warmth in her life, no connection to friends or family. Safe is suffused with seemingly limitless dread, but any turn toward outright horror would have added just enough warmth and passion to dampen its effect.
Even if it’s not quite a horror film, Safe certainly begins like one. The film opens with the camera driving leisurely through a neighborhood in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, which a title card specifies takes place in 1987. The shot instantly conjures the sense of dread that will pervade the rest of the movie, which is helped along by Brendan Dolan’s Eno-like synthesizer score. It’s common to film from a car, but Haynes adopts a shorthand that signals something bad is about to happen. When a camera placed behind the windshield films a long drive, it creates a sense of anticipation — we’re driving somewhere, to some event, and the eerie music and nighttime setting suggest we’re not going anywhere pleasant.
Inside the car is Carol White (Julianne Moore, never better), who’s being driven by her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley). There’s a hard cut from the two walking in from the garage to an overhead shot of Greg pounding away while a sympathetic but unmoved Carol lies beneath him under the sheets. Safe telegraphs the state of the relationship and a bit of her personality in the abrupt shot, showing that Carol is a woman who doesn’t know how to desire, and whose marriage is a matter of going through the motions. Later, she literally goes through the motions when she joins her “friends” at an aerobics class. In the locker room afterward, one of the friends, who has no clear connection to her, compliments Carol because she doesn’t sweat. “I know, it’s true,” she says with a proud smile as if her lack of response to the world around her is a virtue. The first time her veneer cracks is within the safety of her home early in the film.
“Oh my God,’ Carol utters as she walks into her living room, where a couch was to be delivered earlier that day. We’re primed to expect a dead body or something else horrific, but when the camera angle changes, we see she was only reacting to the wrong couch being delivered; she ordered teal, but they gave her black.
Life wouldn’t seem that bad if your biggest concern is the color of your sofa, but things begin to go south for Carol shortly afterward. During a drive through the city, she’s overcome by a violent coughing fit after she’s stuck driving behind an exhaust-spewing truck. Even after she turns down another street, she can’t stop the coughing. Later, Carol tries to spice up her life by getting a perm, her nose spontaneously starts to bleed while she’s still in the chair. Her complexion worsens, and her pale, freckled skin begins to take on a blotchy reddish pallor.
Carol gets a check-up with her doctor to find an explanation, whether it be allergies or an autoimmune disorder, but the doctor’s tests come back negative. Thinking her symptoms are psychosomatic, he sends her to a psychologist who barely says anything in his sessions. He wants to let Carol do the talking, but she has no idea what to say about her life. Having never examined it, she doesn’t even know where to start. Later, she gets an allergy test with another doctor who’s practically gleeful at how violent her reaction is to one chemical.
Carol becomes convinced she’s suffering from an environmental illness, often called multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). It’s a condition in which people can develop headaches, fatigue, and allergy-like symptoms when exposed to certain chemicals. Except that it’s not considered an illness by the American Medical Association, and studies exposing people claiming to suffer from MCS to various chemicals have found that they respond as strongly to real chemicals as to placebos. Their physical symptoms are a response to thinking they’ve been exposed to dangerous chemicals, even if they haven’t.
Once she’s convinced that it’s chemicals that are causing her physical symptoms, Carol begins to withdraw from public life. She joins a community out in the desert led by Peter Dunning (the great Peter Friedman) a man claiming to suffer from MCS who also has AIDS. He the last in a line of people claiming expertise who can’t help Carol and don’t particularly care about her. After her doctor treated her complaints as hysteria, and her psychologist couldn’t be bothered to take an interest in her case, he at least pretends to care. But Dunning has no solutions, despite taking his guests’ money. He goes as far as to blame them for their conditions. After an elderly man dies for unexplained reasons at the camp, Dunning blames the man’s death on his glum attitude.
It should be so easy to feel sympathy for Carol as her world falls apart. She’s been denied any true female friendship, is stuck in a loveless marriage, is suffering from a mysterious ailment, and is ignored and sometimes outright belittled by both her husband and all the professional men in her life. Yet part of what makes Safe so disturbing is that Haynes doesn’t allow us to feel that sympathy, because Carol is a husk of a person, with no real soul. She has no desires aside from the need to fit in. She has a marriage because she should have one by that age. She works out and goes to birthday parties with her fake friends because that’s what a woman of her milieu would normally do. The only thing she’s passionate about is the color of her living room sofa. Moore conveys Carol’s displacement from the rest of the world through her voice, which she raised the pitch of and added a bit of California up-speak to it. The actress also went on an extreme diet throughout the production, so that she seems to be wasting away by her final scenes.
Part of what makes Safe one of the greatest films of the 1990s is that Haynes opens up so many different ways to interpret and examine the film. It’s popular to read the movie as an AIDS allegory, and the disease is explicitly on Haynes’ mind, but it’s just as easy to see Carol as the product of a sexist world that ignores the voices and complaints of women. The film also seems to critique the way we pollute the environment, which makes it a direct predecessor to his more explicitly anti-corporate film Dark Waters (2019).
By the end of Safe, Carol has decided to completely throw off her last connections to the world around her by moving into an enclosed pod that’s vacated when its inhabitant dies. In the final moments, the camera zooms in ever so slowly as she stares into a mirror and whispers to herself, “I love you,” over and over, willing herself to believe it. The eerie final images have taken on greater significance as people around the globe have also been forced to cut themselves off from the world in order to find their own safety. Hopefully, it won’t be us looking back in that mirror.