SAFE. "I love you... I really love you... I love you..." This is Carol White (Julianne Moore) addressing her image in the mirror, or in the camera lens, at the end of Todd Haynes' 1995 film Safe. The words are halting and uncertain; Carol is trying too hard to convince herself that all is well. Her ravaged face, in a rare close-up, occupies the center of the screen. She looks tired. A reddish blotch covers much of her forehead. At least she's not coughing any more, or losing her breath, or having convulsions. But she still needs frequent hits from the oxygen tank she carries around everywhere. Carol is environmentally sensitive. She falls ill at the slightest trace of any of the numerous chemicals that pervade our homes, our workplaces, our shopping malls, and even the air we breathe. Her body can no longer tolerate the artificial toxins--or for that matter, the artificial culture--of white, bourgeois Southern California. She doesn't really know what's wrong--at first, she thinks it's stress--and neither do her doctors. But she feels that something is out of whack; her body won't let her forget it. Carol, it seems, is "allergic to the twentieth century." Somehow, she doesn't fit in. We see her mostly in long shots, framed within expensive, sterile interiors. She seems baffled and disoriented in these vast suburban spaces: whether she's driving on the freeway, running errands at the mall, or squriming on the psychiatrist's couch. Her San Fernando Valley home is lavish, but uninviting; you wouldn't feel comfortable sitting on those color-coordinated sofas, or wandering from outsized room to outsized room. These places are so alien, so out of scale, so inimical to the flesh. Carol is literally suffocated by them. She finds herself puking, or thrashing about, or coughing uncontrollably: it's the only way her body has to expel their poisons. The violence of her symptoms is her one true contact with the world. There must be more to life than aerobics and beauty salons and baby showers. Her body feels this, even if her conscious mind does not. She has to find a way out; a physical breakdown is her means of escape. She abandons home and family, in the second half of the film, to take refuge in the "chemical-free zone" of Wrenwood, a healing facility out in the desert. Now she's alone in her safe house, a spare, windowless, porcelain-lined cell. From the outside it looks sort of like an oversized white egg. Inside, it's severely minimal and constricted. The furnishings are spartan, the walls close at hand. No toxins can get in, and nothing whatsoever can get out. Is such close confinement the price she must pay for health? Convalescing, she just wants to retreat from the whole world. But how far must she go, before she feels safe? The desert air is clean and wholesome, but never quite enough. Even the fumes from a passing truck put her in a panic. The only things she can call her own are her awkwardness, uncertainty, and fear. These are the very points through which her allegiance can be engaged. For Wrenwood is really a New Age cult, run by the creepy guru Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman). He encourages Carol to look inward, into herself. Her selfhood is as carefully nourished in Wrenwood as it was denied at home. You yourself are responsible for your illness, Peter tells her. If you got sick, it's because on some level you chose to. If you want to get well, shut your eyes and ears to everything from outside. Purge away those negative feelings, and give yourself to love. Learn to cherish and love yourself, and everything will be fine. Life at Wrenwood is a continual training in selfhood. It goes well beyond what's offered in infomercials and self-help videos and 12-step programs. Haynes shows us the process completely deadpan: the group therapy sessions, the strategic displays of sympathy, the earnest exhortations, the communal dinners. If the first half of the film contemplated the horrors of outer, suburban space, the second half renders visible something much harder to see: the real estate development, as it were, of inner, psychological space. Almost nothing overtly happens in this part of the film. Only, step by step, Carol is cajoled into assuming a new identity. The New Age gives her a soul to match her white suburban body. Self-esteem is the redemption offered to wayward Stepford Wives. Carol's ailing flesh will never be healed, but it's as if she no longer cared. Space contracts to that last shot of just her face in the mirror. We are left uneasily suspended between hope and desolation. For what kind of response is a reflection capable of? No matter how much Carol loves that face, it will never love her back. She has only gotten out of one trap by falling into another. Her timid attempt to escape has left her stranded in another impasse.
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