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