Sick note from suburbia

Satire, art movie, medical horror? In the film's very ambiguity lies the fascination. Adam Mars-Jones risks the 'Safe' experience

SAFE Todd Haynes (15)

Todd Haynes's mysterious and beautiful film Safe tells the story of a woman who becomes sensitised by her environment to the point where exposure to the routine chemical insult of a perm can trigger symptoms, or even a seizure. As Haynes, whose first feature was the talented but irritating Poison, has been associated with queer film-making, there is an assumption that with Safe he is using his protagonist's condition as a stand-in for Aids.

This mildly insulting suggestion can't survive even a few minutes of the film itself. Aids has a fixed set of cultural meanings, which must either be allowed or contested, while what happens to Carol White (Julianne Moore) is something that she must make sense of as best she can - and so must we - as we watch. On one level Safe works as the most deadpan possible satire on Californian suburbia. Carol lives in a luxurious house in a hillside development that looks like an advertisement for itself. When she is referred to a shrink she describes herself as a "housewife", before substituting the term "homemaker", but neither word seems to apply. She claims to be working on some designs for the house in her spare time, but we see no trace of this activity.

The total of her domestic workload seems to be making coffee for her husband, after a dinner that the maid has cooked and cleared away. When she talks to the shrink about being stressed, she particularly mentions an "important client dinner" that is looming. Is she going to make the meal herself? But no, the big event takes place in a restaurant, and her contribution is restricted to laughing at the clients' jokes.

Carol goes to aerobic classes but no amount of exercise seems able to make her break out into a sweat. Not that her daily life requires much more exertion than a sideways flip of the head to allow the telephone access to her ear without disturbing the fall of her hair. In bed with her husband, she is passive and rather non-committal, waiting for his excitement to be over and then dispensing a maternal kiss.

Her social circle is no more dynamic than she is. At a baby shower attended by a dozen tastefully frilly women, the question "did you wrap that yourself?" receives the answer, "Are you kidding? I wish I was that creative."

On a satirical reading of the film, Carol's surroundings become dangerous to her precisely because they are too safe. Her life contains no roughage, and so her ability to digest it breaks down, as blandness acquires a paradoxical toxicity. She traces her sensitisation to the arrival of a poisonous new couch, but significantly the first problem is the colour of the item. She ordered teal and they delivered black. She almost goes into shock. It is as if she can't tolerate any surprise, any unannounced stimulus.

There's comedy in the moment when the delivery team installs the right couch at last, the trio in overalls stepping back to allow an appreciation moment, as if they had just hung an Old Master. Yet a satirical reading of Safe only goes so far. Carol with her little-girl voice and her pale suits is not so much trivial as unformed. With her addiction to milk, which chimes so nicely with her bland surname, she might best be described as unweaned. She is at a distance from everything, starting with her husband and stepson. But the camera does not claim an intimacy with her either. It glides towards her without crossing any threshold. The director's slow tracking shots are studiously neutral rather than stealthy, and Julianne Moore offers herself to the camera's gaze with no effort at animation.

Carol makes a pilgrimage from the suburbs to the desert, pulling behind her an oxygen cylinder on a trolley like a little golf cart, to a centre called Wrenwood where environmental illness is treated - or rather, allowed to flower. One of the staff members at Wrenwood offers a little aria of self healing: "This was a gift. This whole thing was a gift, everything was taken away from me, everything in the material sense. And what was left was me."

Yet she offers only disconnected maternal gestures and a rhetoric of reclaimed strength that is subtly entrapping. First of all Carol is told, "All these feelings you're having are just fine. They're just natural."

But then Peter (Peter Friedman), who runs Wrenwood and who works on an audience like a mixture of stand-up comedian and fundamentalist preacher, has a slightly different message. He asks people why they think they got sick and prompts them to their therapeutic breakthroughs. "The person who hurt you most was ...?" he hints, and a patient will obediently reply "... was me."

Under this regime Carol's symptoms are both relieved and intensified. They go into remission, yet can be set off by ever smaller triggers. When her husband visits, he gets to pull her oxygen cart but his cologne makes her recoil even though he is not wearing any. A clean shirt's history of cologne is enough to set her off. She starts using the jargon of the institute, and casts longing glances at a porcelain-lined igloo up the hill, the safest place in this whole safe place.

In some ways her condition improves. She is able almost to flirt with another resident and to collaborate with him on the making of lasagne for a group meal. This relatively straightforward Italian dish is her most ambitious project in the whole film, yet it hardly seems a triumph over adversity. The overall impression that Safe leaves is that the heroine has disappeared inside an illness that she may have invented.

Safe seems like a European art movie in its avoidance of forced climaxes. The film has a continuous fascination that is not to do with getting answers. Ed Tomney's synthesiser score mutates from ominous throbbing to New Age reassurances without ever quite helping us to know what to feel. But if the film seems to come from nowhere in recent American cinema, perhaps it does have identifiable ancestors. Where else have we seen a love of surfaces coupled with an indictment of superficiality, meticulous camera work that does not expect the cliches of revelation from faces or gestures, alienated women disappearing from their lives or embarking on quests that are valued as much for what they leave behind as where they lead? Perhaps only in the classic period of Antonioni. Safe may not quite belong in that company, but it's a breakthrough for Todd Haynes, and a satisfyingly strange experience for audiences willing to risk it.

On general release from tomorrow

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003