Wednesday 28 June 2017

Cult Cinema #7: Safe (1995)

Every so often you get a film that starts out as one thing and at then end turns into quite another, and while I genuinely don't care about spoilers, there is something to be said for not knowing how a film will end, or what course it will take. Sometimes even including a film in a list of thematically similar movies ruins the surprise of first viewing. Todd Haynes's 1995 film Safe, is perhaps old enough for it not to matter. So. Safe starts out one way, and goes to an unexpected place.
Is this what they delivered?
So it's 1987, and we're in the San Fernando Valley. Carol (Julianne Moore in her first starring role) is a wealthy housewife. She lives in a huge (and stereotypically hideous) home, and she has hardly anything to do, other than awkwardly manage home helps, potter round the garden, go to aerobics classes and have coffee with her friends. It sounds like an idyllic, privileged life, but right from the beginning of the film, it's clear that she's not right. The very first moment we see her,  she sneezes. And when a character sneezes in a movie, you know they're basically doomed.

And then she's in bed, and her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) is rutting on her, and she's staring up at the ceiling, bored, waiting for him to be done.

And that's sort of an indicator, right there, of who Carol is. She's just passive, a blank slate on whom others impose their own feelings, thoughts, opinions. A friend says Carol should join her on a fruit diet, and Carol just starts the diet then and there. The most profound crisis Carol experiences at the start of the film, the closest she gets to existential dread, is when someone delivers a black sofa rather than a teal one.

The sense of fragility that Carol has, of being everso slightly brittle, deepens. There's something not right from the beginning: that sneeze, the way someone at aerobics observes with envy that she doesn't sweat, like that's a good thing. There's very little quiet in Carol's existence; everywhere she goes, there's always the background hum of traffic, of household appliances, of air conditioning. 
Oh my God. Do you have a Kleenex?
The cracks become wide faultlines. She has a coughing fit when she drives behind a truck, which turns into a panic attack. A perm gives her a nosebleed. A blast of detergent at the drycleaners sends her into a fit.

The doctor (character actor Steven Gilborn) tells her to eat some more protein.  Then he tells her to go see a psychiatrist. She's tested for allergies, and some things trigger her straight away, but still there's a refusal to take Carol seriously, the insistence that if they can't tell what's wrong with her, it being in her head is the only option. And now that she needs people to listen, now she has something to say that isn't just noise, now she's in pain and can't hide it, her friends are bored with her. It isn't that Carol doesn't have an inner life, or that she's blank, empty; it's that her life does not permit her to have depth. She is not allowed a full life. The psychiatrist says "We really need to be hearing from you. What's going on with you?" And Carol can't answer, stares at the man blankly.

She sees a flyer for a talk about allergies to fumes and chemicals, that asks: Are you allergic to the 20th Century? She goes to a support group. Watches information videos.

Eventually Carol winds up at a place called the Wrenwood Center, a place that's somewhere between a commune and a compound founded by a self help guru called Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman, Hank in The Path), himself a sufferer, a man who claims that's he's suffering from such acute environmental sensitivity that he can't even watch the news because it makes him nauseous.
Take this down.
And here is where it gets strange. Aside from a woman who screams at Carol's driver not to come into the estate, because of the fumes, Carol has a warm welcome at Wrenwood. She gets a tour: here is where people stay, here is where we hold the workshops, let's get you checked in. It seems accepting and loving. Up until now the whole film has had something of the structure of a "disease movie", the sort of film where you see an ordinary person become damaged, and perhaps radicalised, by an unusual disease, and which then in the second act has them find a way to some sort of happy ending. It seems like it might allow her an escape from her toxic world. But now it takes a weird turn. 

Carol goes to a meeting. The director, Claire (Kate McGregor-Stewart) stands up and explains the rules. Men and women are to eat, he says, at opposite ends of the dining hall, and in silence. They ask for "moderation in dress" and ask that the residents refrain from sexual interaction. They ask that the residents concentrate on "self-realisation". Peter Dunning stands up. A woman sits next to Carol and whispers how wonderful he is. And his talk begins to sound like a sermon.

Everyone joins in with what sounds like a liturgy: "We are one with the power that created us, we are safe, and all is well in our world." And then, led from the front, they all sing a sappy song: give yourself to love, it says.

Carol keeps seeing a man in a mask, stumbling in the distance as if he is very much in pain. Peter tells her that the man is just very afraid.
Are you allergic to the 20th Century?
As it goes on, it becomes apparent that Peter is a quack. He keeps telling the residents that "the only person who makes you sick is you," and at the end, you see him run workshops where he quite brutally shuts down people who don't toe that line. Let's throw away every negative and destructive thought we have, he says. But that includes anger. And why shouldn't Carol be angry that no one has taken her seriously? Why does she have to take what everyone says? But she is a production of her environment, and her environment has built her to die.

Everything about Wrenwood is gauged towards control. And the most awful, inexorable element of Carol's destruction is that at no point is she allowed the agency to escape. No one helps her. People die at Wrenwood. Carol shows no physical sign of getting better. 
All is well in our world.
Carol is punished for not having a will of her own, but she was never permitted the space to be anything other than a blank receptacle for other people's desires, opinions and fads. Her husband fucks her with no regard for how she's feeling, treats her illness as a massive inconvenience to him, regardless of what it's doing to her. Her doctor can't accept that there's anything wrong that he couldn't know about. The immunologist takes notes of her condition, even while she's entering mild anaphylaxis. And the self help guru too is telling her it's all in her head and she just needs to love herself. When at the end she's reduced to living in a ceramic igloo and whispering "I love you" into a mirror as if trying to convince herself, Carol is no more doomed than she was at the start of the film.

In Safe, a cult – and where Carol winds up is no more or less than a predatory cult – is exactly as toxic as the rest of the world. It controls her. Everything dehumanises Carol; but she was never allowed to be fully human to begin with. Her wealth and privilege avail her nothing, because she has no control over it. She's as much an agent of her own life as a teal sofa.  
I love you. I really love you.
Safe is that rarest of things, a film that you'll either find a little bit unfathomable (and maybe even pretty dull) or completely terrifying. It's a (slightly, when it was made) retro 1984 for women, about the dystopia that women face every day. The whole film is about a woman destroyed by the world. Her environment literally makes her sick, it is literally toxic, and she's either told there's nothing wrong, or that what's wrong is inconvenient, or that it's all in her head. Even her apparent liberation drives her deeper into slavery.

Julianne Moore carries the film; her performance is understated and yet powerful. Carol isn't terribly bright, but your sympathy for her, your dread for what she's going through, grows. It's very rare to see a dramatic film where you root for someone who's not the smartest or most resourceful character, but then this is horror film, a very low-key, very quiet horror film, and horror films play by different rules.