SAFE (director/writer: Todd Haynes; cinematographer: Alex Nepomniaschy; editor: James Lyons; music: Ed Tomney; cast: Julianne Moore (Carol White), Xander Berkeley (Greg White), Dean Norris (Mover), Julie Burgess (Aerobics Instructor), Peter Friedman (Peter Dunning), Susan Norman (Linda), James LeGros (Chris), Jodie Markell (Anita), Mary Carver (Nell), Kate McGregor-Stewart (Claire, Director), April Grace (Susan), Chauncey Leopardi (Rory), Peter Crombie (Dr. Reynolds); Runtime: 119; Sony Pictures Classics; 1995)
“A chilling allegorical tale.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A chilling allegorical tale about a middle-class woman having a nervous breakdown and becoming dysfunctional because of the menacing environment. She develops multiple allergies and can’t be treated by her conventional doctors and eventually checks herself into a cult-like “New Age” health center in New Mexico, which offers counseling and alternative treatment for the socially dysfunctional.
It’s set in the San Fernando Valley of 1987. Director/writer Todd Haynes (Poison) lets the woman’s bourgeois lifestyle be fully explored while he seems to distance himself from the story and gives the viewer a lot of freedom for interpretation. His visual presentation is deliberately slow-paced and hypnotic.
Julianne Moore is wealthy housewife Carol White, who makes for a superbly nutty victim. It’s a haunting portrait of Carol affected by this controversial mysterious illness. This hard to treat disease has swept through the country during the late 1980s.
Carol lives in a huge ornate house, has a distant but somewhat supportive businessman husband Greg (Xander Berkeley), a spoiled ten-year-old stepson Rory, a housemaid, and many lady friends she socializes with in restaurants, at each other’s equally luxurious homes and at her aerobic’s classes. Her suburban residence appears to be far removed from the terror of L. A. crime, traffic gridlocks and pollution.
When a couch that is delivered is black instead of teal, it upsets the decorative-minded Carol so much that she rushes into the city on the freeway but has to pull off the road because she has a bad coughing reaction from the car fumes emitting gusts of black smoke. She becomes more sensitive to toxins in the air, the food with chemicals, and has a few more embarrassing attacks. This sends her to see a number of doctors who offer no support, as their tests show no symptoms of her illness on their medical charts. Her family doctor believes her illness is psychosomatic and sends her to a shrink. Carol’s husband is patient, but he’s puzzled why this is happening. As her condition worsens despite taking medication she becomes more withdrawn and irritable, and she blames the toxins in her environment as the cause. The last straw is when Carol faints while at a dry-cleaning store because an exterminator is spraying. She is rushed to the hospital in a life-threatening condition. Even though she’s given a clean bill of health by the hospital, Carol does not feel relieved. But on a whim, after seeing a flyer in her health club, she attends a meeting and lecture given by an alternate environmental group and finds comfort in the company of other environmental victims and decides to join their expensive treatment program.
Wrenwood Center is located in the pristine New Mexican desert, away from the industrial centers. Upon her arrival she is coddled and made welcome by the director Claire and her assistant Susan. Carol quickly becomes part of the group who have similar environmental illnesses. They are trying to clean themselves out from pollutants and heal themselves by supporting each other. Carol is asked by an AIDS victim, the one who runs the center, someone with a cheery attitude and with an academic self-help response to all problems, Peter Dunning (Friedman): Why did you become sick? The answer he wants to hear “is that there is no one to blame but yourself for damaging your immune system; but the good news is that I’m now fighting back and taking charge of my life, trying to get in touch with healing myself.”
It is hard to tell if Todd Haynes thinks Carol is getting better or if she’ll ever conquer this disease. She’s living in isolation at the center in a specially built allergy free igloo-styled safe house.
Haynes seemed to be more concerned with showing how society created these types of diseases through misuse of the environment. But the director offers no help in determining if Carol’s stay is beneficial or not. Nevertheless he does show the retreat’s leader, Peter Dunning, lives in a mansion overlooking the less luxurious cabins of his patients.
The film might not have been great dramatically, but it was a fascinating look at a strange phenomena that is affecting millions. This is no laughing matter or something to be dismissed just because it is not understand. It is also fascinating because the group we saw suffering from the environment illnesses, were all rich and bourgeois. The ‘fat cats’ in society, who have everything to live for in the materialistic world. But they are stuck between choosing someone who might be a charlatan offering only feel-good therapy and the established medical field that can’t offer any support. This satire on the bourgeois and their so-called yuppie disease seems to be asking, Where can you be safe in this world?
REVIEWED ON 4/8/2002 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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