Todd Haynes is 35 and lives in Brooklyn, New York. He developed a certain level of notoriety in America for his last film Poison which, in the vanguard of what was briefly called "New Queer Cinema", won a major award at the Sundance Festival in 1991. Because the movie had received a small amount of money from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American equivalent of the British Arts Council, certain right-wing American politicians vilified it publicly in the Senate. Barbara Bush's friends stormed out of cinemas showing Poison, claiming they needed to scrub themselves in Chlorox disinfectant. As it happens, Safe is exactly about what would happen to a Republican soaked in Chlorox.
Haynes grew up in the Los Angeles environment depicted in Safe (it's partly filmed at his uncle's house), a suburb within a suburb, where his father was a cosmetics salesman and his grandfather had been chief of set construction for Warner Brothers. Strangely, the worlds of set design and make-up are never far away from Haynes's thematic concerns, and Safe, the story of a young woman developing acute allergies to everyday chemicals, is effectively the tale of a housewife who finds she cannot wear make- up while living a shallow existence in a house that turns out to be a kind of bourgeois film-set.
Haynes started young, his cinematic senses already thrilling to an early encounter with Mary Poppins (his obliging mother occasionally wore Mary Poppins dresses for her unusual young son). Aged nine, he made a film of Romeo and Juliet. He starred in a McDonald's advertisement for filet- o'-fish. After graduating in 1985 from Brown University with a degree in art and semiotics, he drifted from Berlin to LA to New York, working as a gallery porter for modern art exhibitions before enrolling at film school and completing a movie about the fractious relationship of French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, containing "tableaux and famous mythical moments in their lives".
Superstar, Haynes's now legendary cult 1987 animation film about Karen Carpenter, suppressed by a litigious Carpenter's family, followed next. It won two awards and was remarkable for its use of Barbie dolls instead of actors. The anorexic singing star never looked better. Poison made Haynes's name as the most talented independent film-maker of his generation with its sophisticated montage of three different movie styles, its intercut stories of Jean Genet's gay jailbirds, a 1950s spoof sci-film about a scientist drinking liquid sex-drive and developing a kind of leprosy, and the strange tale of a little boy who flies out of the window after killing his father.
A similar autobiographical little boy inhabits the short film Haynes was able to complete while awaiting funding for Safe (much to his irritation, fund-raising took a long time because he showed no interest in reproducing the successful formula of Poison). Dottie Gets Spanked, a Freudian tale which charts a boy's unmanly obsession with a Lucille Ball-type star of the 1950s, is based on Haynes's own childhood. It is, without a doubt, one of the best short films to have come out of America in recent years.
Haynes laughs when I ask him if he is the sissy-boy in Dottie. He admits that all the drawings of Lucille (aka Dottie) in the film are his own, saved by his mother. "I first thought of Dottie when they were casting for that TV film about Lucille. When I didn't get the part - no! just kidding - I started to think about Lucille. As in Dottie, I really did go to her show, and I did give her a book. The real Lucille was very different from her screen persona, she was scaring the pants off everyone on set. When I was older it occurred to me it was bizarre why she chose to be this masochistic baby-woman for the viewer's pleasure, who literally got put over her husband's knee at the end of the show." In Dottie the little boy fantasises about being spanked himself. Did Haynes ever get spanked? "Sometimes my Mom teases my Dad `you're just like the dad in Dottie', and he gets really disturbed. He did spank me twice and I remember being really indignant about it, because we were supposed to disapprove of spanking in our family."
The lightness of touch Haynes displays in Dottie is transformed into something much darker and more ambivalent in Safe, which has just been voted film of the year by 10 influential American critics. Heavily influenced by Kubrick's 2001, with its clean, controlled environments and sense of alienation, Safe is a space-zone full of deadly microwaves. Who is this woman and is her condition real or imaginary? Would it affect our judgement of her one way or another? The film provides no answers. We are so used to answers; but there are no signposts in Haynes's silence, a profound silence at the heart of his film.
The central character, Carol, is stunningly played by the Short Cuts star Julianne Moore. She looks like a slowly curdling glass of milk. A series of violent reactions to dry-cleaning fluid, exhaust fumes and other chemicals, drive her out of her home into a self-help commune in the New Mexico desert. We are all responsible for our own illness, claims the resident guru. An invisible miasma of blame and guilt, far more toxic than any modern chemical, descends over Carol's life. She gets more and more sick until she finally ends up in a Kubrick-style white igloo, its filtered sterile environment an escape capsule from planet earth.
Haynes isn't being satirical. He's been accused of this and it annoys him. "I think it's clear who the bad guys are and they're the guys at the commune," he says. "But I did want to make a film that questioned whether she was physically sick or not." He denies that it is a metaphor for Aids, "which everyone knows is physically real", though his awareness of the 1980s migration of gay men into New Age health communes has played a strong role in his increasing distaste for such places. "This notion that people were somehow to blame for their illness, and the so-called empowerment this provides, really upsets me. The whole idea of the internal `self' being this pure thing that we have access to and once you make contact your life falls into place, I think it really sucks. I'm disturbed how New Age thought has become so similar to right-wing thought. You're responsible for your own shit. No special privileges for the disenfranchised. Go out there and compete." In this sense Safe is more a metaphor for politics than disease. It's about someone running away from a hostile environment rather than trying to change it.
Haynes brushes aside the accusation that he has somehow stopped being a gay director by making a film without any gay people in it. Just look at Fassbinder. "Fassbinder is one of my idols. He'd go to New York and have his meetings at The Mineshaft! But his films weren't about gay people. They were about women. I was a feminist before I was ever gay. Feminism was my first real language for dealing with an oppressive, rigid society. I'm incredibly close to women and love them but have never felt sexual towards them."
Perhaps sensing his feminist credentials, Jennifer Jason Leigh was so impressed with Safe she asked Haynes to direct a script she's been developing with David Thewlis. He has few problems about making a more mainstream film. It certainly won't have any violence in it; he left the cinema in disgust during a showing of Reservoir Dogs, and worries about films that have "no concern for the violence in the world".
"It's a twisted black comedy about women who fall in love with convicts behind bars," says Haynes of Jennifer Jason Leigh's film. "It's about how the perfect relationship is with someone who is locked up!" Haynes, the irrepressible wunderkind of American movies, ying to Tarantino's yang, is set to change his style yet again.
n `Safe' opens on 26 April in London and selected venues nationwide