by Rob Gonsalves
Todd Haynes has made a career out of trying people's patience. He annoyed Richard Carpenter with his infamous, unreleased "Superstar," which told the story of Karen Carpenter via Barbie dolls. He irritated me with his feature debut, "Poison," an art-house flower so swollen with metaphorical pollen it could give a department of English professors a bad case of the sniffles. And in "Safe," Haynes risks losing viewers who aren't willing to stay with him through long, static, slow spots before his vision takes hold.Safe is another art-house flower, though this one is more like a Venus fly-trap. Like Hitchcock and David Lynch, Haynes lulls you with a pattern of dullness -- presentable middle-class normality gradually eroded by perversity, until finally the perversity takes over. The movie isn't in a trance -- it is a trance. And either you find it weirdly compelling or you don't. I did.
"Probably the best effort by an always-interesting director."
Safe is about Carol White (Julianne Moore), a passive and rather dull California homemaker who discovers that she's allergic to the 20th century -- that she has Environmental Illness, a rare disorder afflicting people who have a low tolerance for the thousands of daily chemicals and irritants that most of us, by now, take in stride. This is an actual ailment, and though Haynes' script follows something of a TV-movie disease-of-the-week trajectory, he knows a ripe symbol of modern alienation when he sees one. Carol is like an innocent alien, a cross between E.T. and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, driven into seclusion by our intolerable atmosphere. She could represent any number of other things, too (though Haynes has insisted that we take her simply as a woman with a disease). Even her name carries associations with Carol Brady and, of course, colorlessness. In an odd way, too, Carol is linked to the Lily Tomlin character in, of all movies, the 1981 Joel Schumacher comedy The Incredible Shrinking Woman; Tomlin played an ordinary housewife whose exposure to everyday household chemicals made her shrink, and both movies share a certain anger about women who are victimized, marginalized, and finally radicalized by their own consumerist culture.
Little by little, Carol detaches herself from the outside world, suffering at the hands of clueless men who think she's just a bored rich woman angling for attention. Julianne Moore is in almost every shot, and the physical preparation she did for the role -- dropping about fifteen pounds from her already slender frame -- certainly shows. She's convincingly ravaged and weak, a helpless woman who, by the end of the movie, has seen her world dwindle to the confines of a hermetic igloo. Nobody can be trusted: not her doctor, not her insensitive husband (Xander Berkeley), not the unctuous leader (Peter Friedman) of a "safe" retreat for EI sufferers -- not even the air she breathes, which at any moment can be fouled by the exhaust of an unexpected passing truck. In the past, Moore had played red-blooded women of intelligence. Here she plays an empty, pallid, somewhat dim woman, yet she never condescends to Carol. You're with her right from the start, when she lies beneath her husband, silently enduring his thrusting. And when her symptoms worsen and she's wheezing and gasping for air as if through a pinhole, you gasp right along with her. Without Moore's delicate portrait of disintegration, Haynes probably wouldn't have a movie.
But Safe is still an advance over Poison, a less focused study of disease and society. "Inspired by the works of Jean Genet," Poison was subversive, all right, but it was hard to tell what it was subverting. Haynes used B-movie cheapness to hook us, then turned around and sneered at the cheapness. The result was interesting, perhaps, but not very satisfying -- antagonistic rather than involving. In Safe, Haynes has a better story and a surer touch, and in the lifeless, suffocating long takes of soulless people sitting in boring living rooms he shows a Kubrickian taste for visual irony and hypnotic mood. A populist exciter like Oliver Stone might have turned Safe into a rampaging cautionary tale, with Carol venting her rage at her male oppressors (probably at a noisy press conference). Haynes isn't interested in catharsis. He likes to confound the audience, punish us for wanting an easy way out.
After Carol has been at the retreat for a while, we realize that the leader's relentless motivational talks amount to psychological fascism. "I've stopped reading the newspapers," he announces -- the negative news media being a roadblock to self-actualization. The confused, unhappy people sitting in therapy-group circles are encouraged to "take responsibility" for themselves, i.e., blame themselves for their illness; they could get better if they would only listen to the leader and become self-actualized. This section of the movie rivals Kubrick in its cold-eyed satire of the new therapy culture (just as toxic as the pollution outside, we're meant to see), where people are made to feel they can't get by without a motivational head-shrinker guru and Prozac, or at least the latest self-help book. There's nowhere for Carol to escape except into herself, which would be fine if she had a self."Safe" is one of the most mesmerizing and provocative films in recent years. It's a rash of ambiguity spreading across your skin and under it, too; if Haynes has the ointment, he won't apply it.
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originally posted: 05/20/06 14:49:01