Modern life is killing Carol White (Julianne Moore). She wheezes. Her nose bleeds. Her head throbs. Her skin breaks out in rashes. She sleepwalks through her daily life, listless. But as writer/director Todd Haynes establishes from the first reel of his 1995 masterpiece “Safe,” she was pretty listless to begin with. Is Carol’s physical crash the result of an allergic reaction to the tens of thousands of chemicals that swirl through her ordinary suburban existence? Or is there a deeper diagnosis for her malaise? Thanks to a new Criterion Collection reissue/return to circulation for the film, there is no better time than our fracking-friendly era of plastic-poisoned oceans to review the case.
It isn’t hard to see the ways in which chemicals could be causing Carol’s symptoms. In addition to documenting the exhaust fumes and the perm chemicals, Haynes also catches, say, squads of anonymous workers slathering who-knows-what lightly toxic coatings on the woodwork of her sprawling Southern California manse. But the director captures other ambient taints: televangelists preaching the end of the world, the bland succor of self-help platitudes and restorative diets, the constant background noise of airplanes and bad pop radio. And it’s not as if her mystery illness is robbing Carol, played by Julianne Moore, of a vibrant existence. She describes herself to a doctor as a “homemaker,” but her housekeeper does any actual work. The only child in the house is an older stepson who interacts mostly with her slightly petulant businessman husband Greg (Xander Berkeley). Her relationship with Greg seems undemanding beyond providing a pleasant presence at client dinners and the occasional perfunctory sex act. It appears she has little or nothing to live for. The more the outward signs of her condition point to some kind of environmental illness, the less that seems to be the true answer.
Haynes’ script not only resists easy allegory, it also avoids strong plotting. Carol’s decline, like her ailment, unfolds in incremental moments over time. But those moments are often masterful manipulations of unease. Haynes and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy use long shots and the widescreen frame to isolate Moore amid the sterile expanses of her home; exquisitely subtle slow zooms convey the barely perceptible shift from her complacent existence to something less stable. She winds up at a rural retreat for the chemically sensitive, but the new-age-y therapeutic rap that greets her doesn’t seem to have much to do with chemicals as it does more fundamental issues.
Moore is in nearly every shot, and never does she pander. The distress and terror of Carol’s attacks pack all the more potency because they bubble up from beneath the perfect placidity of her soft-spoken reserve, as otherwise untroubled as the tall glasses of milk she downs. Yet in Moore’s hands, Carol also changes, though she regresses more than grows, fighting her body’s rebellion by embracing a physical and psycho-emotional remove that seems likely to diminish her life, not restore it. By the time Moore faces herself in the mirror in the final scene, “Safe” eludes a mere “environmental horror story” for something altogether unsettling, and more damning.