Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Todd Haynes
Stars: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Dean Norris
…”Living in the lap of luxury also means living with some of the most powerful chemicals ever concocted on earth. If you thought terrorism was a serious threat to your health and safety, take a look at Safe and prepare to do battle with a band of sneaky little murderers lurking in your couch, your carpet and your spray bottles, not to mention hair salons, highways and parking garages.”
It’s definitely easier to watch Erin Brockovich (2000) fight and win her case against big corporate polluters than it is to watch Julianne Moore wasting away from privileged housewife to a shadow of her former beautiful self and living in relative isolation in an Arizona desert. But they are they same story. Safe simply picks up the other side, the side of the victim rather than the victor. And, it could be argued, Safe tells the true, down to earth story with which we all can identify rather than the big fantasy story of triumphing against Goliath. Everyone I know is attempting to cut down on the chemicals coming into our lives on an every day basis. We shop organic, clean green and drive hybrid. And we feel like we’re fighting a losing battle.
I think Todd Haynes aimed his film at raising consciousness, filming a stylized, non-personal story meant to give you the creeps. The opening scenes feel more like the beginning of a mystery thriller than a study of a woman suffering the slow demise of a misunderstood illness. An unseen driver maneuvers a big black car into a darkened wealthy neighborhood at night, shines its headlights into the driveway of a large Tudor style home and slides silently through an electric gate. In the morning, a husband methodically makes love to a wife who sweetly pats him on the shoulder when he finishes his orgasm. Everything in place. Everything waiting for a disturbance. He leaves for work in an expensive suit while she clips flowers, waiting for a couch to be delivered to their mansion. It’s a picture of perfection, the ideal upscale life. Then the couch arrives, in black instead of teal and, symbolically, the murderer enters the house. The wife is the designated victim. Her husband, doctor and friends will stand aside like frozen bystanders on a sidewalk watching an old lady being pummeled by thugs stealing her purse.
It is the innocence of Carol White (Julianne Moore) and the people around her that captures our attention. They have no idea that the exact things they cherish, work so hard for and cost so much money are full of intolerable chemicals, pesticides and poisons. Invisible pollutants surround Carol. Her maids conscientiously spray liberal amounts of cleaning chemicals on trays before serving hors d’oeuvres at a party. We gasp, beginning to realize how pervasive poisons are in our own homes. Most of us adjust – at least we think we do. But some, like Carol, are highly allergic and remind us that our immune systems may be working overtime. To my mind, people with allergies may be acting like canaries in a mineshaft, giving the rest of us advance notice of a dangerous condition not readily detectable with our own senses.
Carol is afflicted with a malady loosely referred to as ‘environmental illness’, thought psychosomatic by many since its cause is so elusive and its symptoms so idiosyncratic. But the attack on the immune system has clear debilitating effects, interfering with the ability to perform ordinary activities. Every day events leave Carol coughing, throwing up and gasping for breath. She becomes a pariah at a baby shower when she mysteriously collapses while holding a child on her lap. Her nose bleeds after getting her hair permed. Carol’s enjoyment of life gives way to a vapid, empty depression full of fear.
On a whim, she picks up a flyer at her gym advertising a talk about the toxic effects of fumes. As she starts to seek answers, she’s drawn into a world of other people on a quest for a cure. Sufferers on a path outside conventional medicine who are willing to take chances because their doctors are stumped, their spouses impatient. It’s not a world Carol is used to and she finds herself frightened of this ‘outsider’ take on life but, desperate for help, she trusts them. The allergist pokes her arm black and blue with substances until he induces a seizure. She finds comfort in his lack of fear about what’s happening to her, relieved to feel a cause and effect connection. And she follows his advice.
To survive, Carol – like others before her – retreats to a desert wellness center in hopes that she can clear the toxins from her body. She finds solace but not a cure in the out-of-the-way community of people who have had similar experiences. The leaders and residents may be accepting of her weakness but the center espouses an ideology that justifies the extreme measures they’re taking. There’s a lot of kindness, an array of explanations and considerable support to withdraw even further to ‘Safe houses’ built like incubator bubbles for premature babies on the property. Despite good intentions, the philosophy reinforces a feeling of hopelessness and offers no way out. She does not get stronger; she weakens.
It may be that breaking out of innocence will not turn around the breakdown of people’s immune systems. Safe leaves us with that feeling, possibly reflecting a dark hopelessness in people that leads to desperate measures of retreat. As we hear stories about how the pollutants from farming and manufacturing in the Midwest are running down the Mississippi River and turning the Gulf of Mexico into a cesspool, perhaps we think our demise is inevitable but far enough off in the future that we can play the role of bystander.
But, perhaps, if we see Carol as a canary – perhaps see Haynes’ whole film as a canary, we’ll be motivated instead to revamp the ventilation system in the mines. Give ourselves the fresh air, sweet water and wholesome earth we deserve even if it costs a lot of money. The diseases stemming from an insistence by a demanding and growing population for more perfect goods, flawless tomatoes and cheap energy aren’t waiting. They’re crying out for us to vamp it up, change our priorities and take responsibility. No one likes to be preachy but the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has never seemed more apt. Developing products with zero toxic side effects seems exactly what we want to be buying with our wealth. Otherwise, we’re stuffing our mattresses with killers. Revamping lifestyles and changing values without losing benefits may be a challenge. But, since no one has a solution for the repairing nature’s immunity system, the good idea is to prevent the breakdown in the first place.
In the Tenth Elegy, the famous poet, Rainier Maria Rilke may have been thinking forward to our times and warning us not to ignore our pain when he wrote:
But there, where they live in the valley, An elderly Lament responds to the youth as he asks:- We were once a great race, she says, a great race, we Laments Our fathers worked the mines up there in the mountains Sometimes amongst men you will find a piece of polished primeval pain or petrified slag from an ancient volcano. Yes, that came from there. We were rich.