Todd Haynes' "Safe:" A Parable for the End of the World
And the end of the world is now, more or less.
Julianne Moore in Todd Hayne's Safe, 1995
Recently I wanted to watch a film about the end of the world. Not a dystopia or a sci-fi, but something that captures the feeling of being in the privileged parts of the world, the places who have caused the most damage but are seeing the effects the slowest. Where months are just starting to peel away from their seasons, and it’s still more impending than end result. They’re not that easy to find, and then I remembered Safe, Todd Hayne's unsettlingly prescient 1995 film.
Set in 1987, Safe centers on Carol White (Julianne Moore), a wan homemaker whose days consist of aerobics classes, lunches and occasional perfunctory sex with her generic husband Greg (Xander Berkeley). Things become slippery when she starts experiencing strange symptoms. Sudden, uncontrollable coughing on the freeway. A nose bleed when she gets a perm. A seizure at the dry cleaners. At a baby shower, she is suddenly unable to breathe. All the tests her doctor runs come back negative; he sends her to a psychiatrist and tells her to quit her all-fruit diet. And so, she self-diagnoses with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or "20th Century Disease," and seeks refuge at Wrenwood, a desert retreat helmed by New Age guru/cult leader Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman).
Carol is fragile. She’s always a little stressed out. Early on, she says she’s really busy due to a “big client dinner” that’s coming up. This turns out to be, not a dinner that she must coordinate or even help host, but a dinner that she attends at a restaurant as her husband’s guest. She speaks in small Valley sentences that tend to end with an upward inflection, so that her statements are lined with a questioning uncertainty. Taking a phone call from her mother that lasts only a couple of minutes, she says the words “mother” and “fine” no less than eight times in total. In the psychiatrist’s office she answers questions with questions: “We were on this fruit diet?” “He’s my stepson? Rory?” And, confronted with the pressure of having to fill a silence, “Aren’t you supposed to ask more questions?”
She exists in a pristine, surreal Southern California home that’s gallery-like in its modernist scale and symmetry. A pair of Marcel Breuer's Wassily chairs face each other sternly. On-screen, domesticity is often oppressive for its smallness, but in Carol’s case, she is not confined by a tight space but lost inside a vast one. She calls for her housekeeper, Fulvia (Martha Velez), nearly incessantly, in a way that signals passivity rather than authority. There’s a scene where Carol enters the living room and stops dead in her tracks. Oh my God. The newly installed sofa is the wrong colour; black, not teal. (And, as she later explains to the store clerk, she wouldn’t have ordered black because it, “doesn’t go with anything we have.” Carol White.) So what does she do? Calls Fulvia.
Some elements of Safe are pure ‘80s (the aerobics classes, plus Carol is a “total milkaholic”), but there’s a lot that’s contemporary. Nearly every early scene is soundtracked by a low hum – air conditioning? Vacuum cleaner? – or the din of T.V. infomercials that simulates an effect close to the constant background noise of social media. And the thing about the onset of Carol’s illness, whether it’s psychosomatic or not, is that it gives her purpose. She is diligent in learning off a list of perceived poisons that includes pesticides, plastics, aftershave, air freshener and, of course, the new sofa. In an interview for Bomb Magazine in 1995, Haynes said that, “Safe is on the side of the disease and not the cure,” and, a statement that could just as easily apply to anti-vaxxers or the chronic-Lyme community, “it [the disease] gives her a new identity.”
Carol finds Wrenwood in a rare instance of spontaneity, via a flyer pinned to her health club noticeboard that reads, “Do you smell FUMES? Are you allergic to the 20th century? Do you have trouble breathing?” A tone that reminded me uneasily of Kyle Chayka’s account of the Home workshop in Ängelsberg, rural Sweden, for which the invite asked, “What if the culture you grew up in was broken in ways that you didn’t even have words for?”
At Home, the aim was to address the personal psychological impact of climate change, including an exercise in which Chayka and his fellow participants were encouraged to interrogate each others’ “personal darkness.” At Wrenwood, Peter leads group therapy sessions with the doctrine of positive thinking: it’s not chemicals, but Carol and her fellow patients who are responsible for their sickness, and self-love is the cure. When one woman says she wants to, “Blow off the heads of everybody who got me like this,” Peter responds, “Nobody out there made you sick.”
What starts to register about Wrenwood is that, though the aesthetics of Carol’s situation have changed, materially, there isn’t that much in it. Sure, she lives in a cabin in the desert and attends communal meals, but she’s still insulating herself from the elements, now armed with her own oxygen supply, and whether it’s a doctor saying it or Peter, the problem starts and ends with her. This has easy parallels to the very particular current cognitive dissonance around climate change. The idea that the solution might not look so different from the problem, that paper straws and cotton tote bags can simply replace plastic. The focus on finding corporate solutions that uphold existing structures. The notion that, no matter the cause, it’s a matter of personal, not collective, responsibility.
In Ling Ma’s 2018 satiric novel Severance, fashion designers respond to the outbreak of the zombifying Shen Fever epidemic by sending branded flu masks down their catwalks. Though this touch might have felt a little heavy handed in the novel, it wasn’t so distant from Raf Simons’ AW18 collection for Calvin Klein, for which he looked to Safe for inspiration. His knitted balaclavas and elbow-length protective gloves mirror those of Wrenwood’s eeriest inhabitant, Lester. “Poor Lester,” Peter observes in one scene, as Lester darts behind cabins in the background. “He’s just... very, very afraid. Afraid to eat. Afraid to breathe.”