Safe

Some recoil from pine-scented cleaning power
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1995
Director: 
Todd Haynes
Starring: 
Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, Xander Berkeley, Susan Norman
The Setup: 
Woman becomes allergic to everything.
Discussion: 

I had seen this movie a few years ago and really liked it, so I was eager to watch it again at some point and get it up on this site. At that time I was going to gather a themed collection of horror movies that aren’t really horror movies, but that idea fell away and now I can’t remember what any of the other movies in it might have been.

We open with these credits as we see the driver’s POV of a car moving through a subdivision at night. This is the San Fernando Valley of 1987. Then we see Julianne Moore as Carol, getting fucked by her husband. She is clearly not interested, but she’s good, the way she goes through the motions of periodically rubbing his back and giving him a little kiss after he’s done. She goes to aerobics class, and afterward her friends observe that she doesn’t sweat.

Carol is expecting a new couch to be delivered. She comes home to receive a call from her mother [Carol: “He’s fine. She’s fine. They’re fine. I will. I will, mother.”], then turns to see that the couch has come, and it’s black. It’s black and she ordered teal! This is the start of all Carol’s problems, and this time, it hit all too close to home for me: I’M expecting a couch to be delivered in a few days! Would mine, too, prove to be an ominous omen of lingering ill reproach?

By this time you will have noticed that there is always some sort of TV or radio on in the background. Carol’s discovery of the couch is hilariously set to “Turn Your Love Around,” and we hear many other examples of the banal media that surrounds us. Her maids gossip in Spanish and ignore Carol’s calls. Carol returns to the store and is informed that the order states she wanted black. “Well that’s impossible,” she says, “because it doesn’t go with anything we have.” Afterward, she is driving behind a truck that does not seem to be meeting state and federal emissions regulations. She starts coughing uncontrollably, and pulls into a parking garage, driving through the anonymous space as she hacks and wheezes. It’s creepy and scary.

SPOILERS > > >
We cut from a line of cars on the freeway to a shot of the planet Earth—I love thematically obvious stuff like this. Then her son reads his school report at dinner, about street gangs, with special emphasis on murders, shootings, stabbings, dismemberment…. Then Carol gets a perm—and a nosebleed. Around this time one has begun to notice the large amount of shots set near windows with cars passing by outside. Her husband finds that Carol no longer wants to have sex. He holds her—and she pukes!

One day she finds a flyer in the supermarket saying “Are you allergic to the 20th century?” which informs her about people who are environmentally sensitive. She goes to her doctor, but he can’t find anything wrong with her. She has another attack at a baby or wedding shower, and tells her husband that she’s become allergic to all the chemicals that pervade our environment. “So you think you’ve been sick because of… bug spray?” he asks.

It goes on. Eventually Carol builds a 'safe' room in her house, and soon after takes off for Rainwood, this retreat for chemically-sensitive people, where she meets a featured patient played by Jessica Harper of Suspiria and Phantom of the Paradise. She also meets guru Peter, who one patient says is environmentally sensitive AND has AIDS, so "his perspective is incredibly vast." Depending on your point of view, she either finds understanding at last or goes completely off the deep end.
< < < SPOILERS END

As a conversation piece, it brings up a great deal, chief among which is whether this illness is real at all, or just psychosomatic. When I watched this the first time, I thought it was quite obvious that it was psychosomatic, but now I think the movie is fairly open about how it could be interpreted, and in many ways isn't really about environmental illness at all. There are many who interpret it to be about AIDS, but I think it's mostly about disaffection from the modern world [making it a great double-feature with Ghost World], with the title being ironic; can we ever really be safe? What does it mean to be safe? Most of the chemicals in the products we use are at 'safe' levels. We are clearly shown that Carol doesn't enjoy sex with her husband, but what's interesting about the movie, leaving it open to interpretation, is that although the rest of Carol's life seems boring and banal to US, with the constant talk radio and insipid music [not that "Turn Your Love Around" is insipid… well, okay, but not that that's a problem], and aerobics classes and showers and fruit diets, we don't necessarily get much evidence that it's banal to HER. That is to say, her life in incredibly empty, but we don't know for sure if she finds it empty, or we're just projecting onto her.

Now I have "Turn Your Love Around" in my head.

Part of what made me feel this way was an article in New York Magazine about parents with chemical sensitivities, and it mentioned that those people consider this movie their statement. I was like; "WHAT?! It's an obvious satire!" but upon review, maybe it's not that obvious. So who knows. Regardless, you might find this Wiki page on MCS, or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, fascinating, as I did. In it we find that doctors can still find no evidence of a physical basis for their symptoms, and that MCS correlates strongly with depression...

Since I watched the movie, I read the essay the writer / director wrote for the DVD booklet, and learned, somewhat to my disappointment, that he does in fact believe in environmental illness, and was making this completely clear and straightforward movie about it. He also explicitly states that he also saw it as a parallel to the AIDS crisis. So, shows what the fuck I know, though I consider it a strength that the movie can be interpreted in multiple ways. By the way, this movie shares an odd number of elements with The Incredible Shrinking Woman. In that film, Lily Tomlin begins shrinking because of all the chemicals in her environment, and there is a similar scene of her trapped in a car with an aerosol chemical, and coughing terribly.

But, as a movie? Definitely interesting, but perhaps it leaves a bit to be desired in the storytelling department. This is more of a statement than a drama. Carol has an attack! Then she has a worse attack! Then a WORSE attack! That's about the structure of the screenplay, and while I found it very compelling the first time, in retrospect I think maybe that was just the novelty of the concept. This time—there just isn't much of a story here. The movie is still quite different and worth watching, it's just less of a complete story and structured film than I hoped it would be. It's kind of more of a conversation piece than anything.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it's definitely worth watching at least once.