Safe is one of those low-key films it’s easy to miss even though it received quite a bit of acclaim when it was released in 1995. Directed by Todd Haynes, this is a stark and understated psychological drama starring Julianne Moore as a suburban housewife who becomes increasingly distraught over symptoms and chemical sensitivity.
Safe is the kind of film that raises more questions than it answers. Anyone who suffers from an autoimmune disease such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or a host of other conditions) may identify with Carol. On the other hand, you can also interpret her situation in a more existentialist way. Is Carol actually physically sick, or is she suffering from a kind of societal malaise that leaves supposedly successful people feeling empty and at odds with an increasingly alienating environment?
In the early scenes of Safe, Carol is shown shopping, having coffee with friends, and driving her Mercedes around nondescript, affluent suburban California neighborhoods. When she first describes her symptoms, she mentions being under stress. Yet her life contains very little stress, at least as conventionally defined. What we can see is that she moves through her life in a robotic way, barely connecting with her unsympathetic husband and her friends from the gym. Her perpetually blase affect is contrasted not by her bland surroundings but by references to the more dangerous and passionate wider world, as when her son excitedly talks about gangs or she hears a fundamentalist preacher on the radio.
As Carol’s symptoms worsen and she doesn’t get help from doctors, she visits Wrenwood, a retreat center that’s run by a self-help guru named Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman). Wrenwood, like Carol’s illness, is hard to pin down. Friedman’s new age rhetoric is meant to be inspirational but it also emphasizes that people are responsible for their own conditions. Is Dunning helping people reach their potential and heal themselves or is he a huckster taking their money while mouthing cliches? As with Carols’s illness, you have to make up your own mind.
At one point, Carol makes a halting, confused speech about how much Wrenwood has helped her. Julianne Moore does a superb job of playing a character whose words are often incongruous with what she’s actually feeling. Soon even the isolated retreat center isn’t sufficient escape from the encroaching pollution and chemicals as Carol starts to believe that fumes from the nearest highway are reaching her.
As Safe has little in the way of a linear plot, I don’t think discussing the ending really qualifies as a spoiler. The final scene (from which I’ve posted a clip from YouTube) reveals that Carol has retreated still further, to an isolated igloo where she’s alone, breathing through a gas mask. The final scene has her repeating “I love you” into the mirror with an utterly hollow expression that belies this affirmation.
Safe, as you can probably gather, isn’t an uplifting film. It has a protagonist with an undefined problem with no apparent solution. With such murky material, I feel entitled to my own interpretation, which centers on the film’s title.
I actually started thinking about this film partly because in 2020 we’re living in a time when the word “safe” is repeated endlessly and people are widely concerned about symptoms, even if from a virus rather than the more nebulous environmental contaminants faced by Carol. The whole idea of being safe brings up the eternal dilemma of living in a world that is inherently unsafe and suggests that when we place too much value on safety it turns us into prisoners at odds with the very fabric of life. The latter, of course, is only one possible interpretation. To me, the film is elegantly ambiguous, leaving us to take from it what we will.