Whether you are an American or not, if you're following the political scene here in the United States–I mean, how can you avoid it?–then you're likely mortified, depressed, terrified, nonplussed, and just plain worn the fuck out. Then you remember the election is still 236 days away and you think about renting a convertible, finding the nearest canyon, and Thelma-and-Louise-ening yourself into sweet oblivion. On the other hand, you don't really feel like leaving the house today so you simply opt to curb your Internetting and social mediaing. You should probably do that regardless.
On the upside of this garbage, all the recent AIDS in the Reagan era news talk got me thinkin' about and revisiting Todd Haynes's other Carol* in 1995's Safe.
I fully admit, when I saw Safe in theaters back in The Day, I wasn't super satisfied. I was disappointed, even. I didn't get it. Mind you, that reaction had more to do with my own preconceived notions of what the film would be than with any of its actual shortcomings, if it even has any. But I went into it expecting some horror-flavored Outbreak-style disease flick (we all had contagious illness fever back then, you see), and Safe...isn't that, despite the fact that Carol White has an environmental/chemical sensitivity and sickness. Or does she?
Safe asks that question of the viewer, and many more besides. The truth and right-or-wrong of everything is kept just out of reach, constantly teasing, and it remains that way until the last frame. All of those questions raised and not a single answer given–what frustrated me upon first viewing ("Where are the exploding faces and people bleeding out, dammit?!") now tantalizes. I gave the film a second chance a few years ago and it clicked and since then, I've delighted in unraveling the layers, plucking at all the threads to see where they lead.
While Carol Aird of Carol and Carol White of Safe are both women concerned with identity and finding their place in the world, they approach these issues from radically different places. Carol Aird knows who she is and what she wants, it's simply a matter of having the courage to claim both and live true to herself. Carol White, on the other hand, hardly exists. She takes up no space. Her voice barely projects–she speaks not from her diaphragm, but from the slightest vibration at that top of her vocal cords. You can be sure she leaves no impression on a mattress when she gets off of it. She is dwarfed by her monstrously large upper middle class surroundings, by her marriage, by everything.
It's easy to read her sudden illness as a rejection of all of this as she tries to finally figure herself out, but again, Todd Haynes doesn't give us such a nice, neat little metaphorical package. We're never given any indication that Carol has an inner life or engages in soul searching whatsoever, and ultimately it's impossible to gauge her motivations. She is simply an empty vessel adrift. She was isolated in her domestic life, but she only leaves it to find herself further isolated–this time quite literally, as she takes to living in a germ-free domicile in a remote desert community of like-minded sufferers. Is she now happy? What does happiness mean to Carol White? Would she even recognize it?
By 1995, Julianne Moore was beginning to emerge as an Actress of Note, One to Watch after turns in Short Cuts and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle–and she is remarkable in Safe. Moore and Haynes provide a great example of that wondrous and rare director-actress synergy that is so rewarding to watch. She knows this character, she gets what he's written, and he lets her work. Every frame of the thing is worth savoring and the production design...it is perfectly 1987. The colors, the puffiness! A nightmare in pastel.
If you've yet to see Safe, fucking see Safe already. I realized in that theatre that it's not "horror", but in the years since I've figured out that it's existentially horrifying, so what's the difference? Play it fast and loose with genre conventions, man, and unravel those threads.
*YES I am still completely obsessed with Carol and I am sure I always will be, so you just count yourself lucky if I don't go ahead and turn this dump into a Carol blog once and for all