The environments of "[Safe]"

Re-watching Todd Haynes’ [Safe] (1995) last weekend—a film that, upon each re-watching, I become more and more certain is a masterpiece of modern American cinema—I found myself more impressed than ever with Haynes’ uncanny command of mise en scène.  It’s perhaps easier to notice the lush period décor and costumes of Haynes’s Fifties films Carol and Far From Heaven or the flamboyant glam excess of Velvet Goldmine than [Safe]’s evocation of a more recent historical period (1987, less than a decade removed from the year in which the film was made).  But [Safe] is no less about its historical moment, and about the vertiginous textures of that moment, than any of Haynes’ other films.  The story of Carol White (Julianne Moore), a wealthy California housewife who begins to develop a debilitating allergic reaction to her surroundings, absolutely depends upon the creation of an entire world of signifiers, all of them loaded: pearl necklaces, rose gardens, baby showers; teal couches, pastel dresses, white milk; fashion magazines, permed hair, pop music; attractive white ladies having lunch and taking aerobics classes, generic white businessmen telling sexist jokes, brown domestics and laborers populating the edges of the frame.         

[Safe] is a film that explicitly engages the notion of environment.  Carol comes to be diagnosed with “environmental illness,” believing herself to be hyper-sensitive to toxins found in everyday consumer products.  Without discrediting this diagnosis, Haynes suggests that Carol’s social or ideological environment—her white, upper-class milieu—is equally as toxic.  A feminist film in the style of Chantal Akerman (by way of Stanley Kubrick), [Safe] presents us with a character utterly at the mercy of a patriarchal system in which her role as a woman is decorative, contingent.  It’s a world that Haynes conveys with a chilling and merciless precision.  Ostensibly “realistic,” the houses, costumes, and interiors are lit and framed as if in a sci-fi movie. 

As Carol retreats to Wrenwood, a New Age treatment facility in the Albuquerque desert, the film’s milieu shifts.  Carol’s bitchy, skinny white-lady friends get replaced by a bevy of smiling, silken-voiced liberals who wear comfy clothes and preach the gospel of self-help; her McMansion gets supplanted by a series of smaller and smaller domestic spaces, culminating in the porcelain-lined “safe room” to which she eventually confines herself.  Haynes tempts us to misread this new milieu along with Carol as a healthy corrective to her toxic bourgeois life in the Valley.  Careful viewers will recognize, however, that Carol has only traded one toxic, claustrophobic environment for another.  Haynes doubles these two seemingly opposite environments in shots that reveal Carol to be isolated from those around her:

These shots come from two of the film’s most brilliant sequences.  The first is a nightmarish baby shower where Carol experiences a panic attack, causing her “concerned” “friends” to regard her with unease that borders on horror.  At the end of the film, during a Sunday dinner that becomes a surprise birthday party, Carol’s new friends at Wrenwood welcome her into their fold—on the unspoken condition that she learn to mouth the platitudes on which their philosophy rests.  (Carol’s final speech, ingeniously delivered by Moore, indicates that she already realizes that her acceptance within the community depends on such mouthing.)  Both sequences show us a Carol fated to remain shut out from any sort of community.  If the baby shower gives us a Carol who herself appears prenatal, devoid of personality or individual will, the party at Wrenwood suggests that she has finally been born.  But Carol’s birthday must be one of the most dismal in cinema.  She has been born into an environment that is no less oppressive than the one from which she earlier escaped—and that’s no cause for celebration.

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