That’s actually a fitting segue to Haynes’ next film, Safe, which stars Julianne Moore as an L.A.-area woman named Carol who develops a sudden and increasingly severe allergic reaction to her environment. Exactly what part of Carol’s environment is making her ill is never made clear. Is it really the air pollution, food toxins, or chemicals on her new furniture? Or does Carol become allergic to her life: her awkward marriage, her lack of purpose, her empty routine of forced social pleasantries? Maybe all of the above. There’s a lot going on in Safe, and I’m not sure it lends itself to one neat, entirely satisfactory interpretation. The one thing that is crystal clear, however, is Carol’s sense of isolation, her ever-growing awareness that she is different, at odds with a world that seems aggressively at odds with her. She doesn’t fit, and emotionally, in addition to physically, it tears her apart. Carol’s reaction to her discomfort is quite similar to Steven’s: she retreats, figuratively and literally, until at the end of the film she’s isolated in an igloo-like bunker within the middle of a quarantined zone within middle-of-nowhere New Mexico. Unable to dissociate from her condition, as Steven tries to do with his drawing, Carol essentially buries herself.
EH: Safe was the first Todd Haynes film I saw, and it remains my favorite; it’s a film that blows me away every time I revisit it, in part because, as you say, it so completely resists all attempts at tidy encapsulation. It’s a very affecting film, its emotions as raw and overwhelming as the anorexic suffering of Karen Carpenter in Superstar or Steven’s blossoming sexual confusion in Dottie Gets Spanked, but at the same time it’s also cerebral, cool, even nearly abstract, with multiple potential meanings embedded in its vague narrative. It’s the best representation of this balance in Haynes’ work, this dichotomy between unfiltered emotionality and cerebral abstraction, which might be thought of as the interplay between two of Haynes’ most obvious influences, Sirk and Godard.
If that’s the case, the film’s first half is its Sirk half, though even then it’s cooler than Sirk, without the lush, over-the-top sensibility that Haynes would embrace in his more complete Sirk homage, Far from Heaven. Still, there’s no doubt that Carol lives in a suburb that might be described as equally Sirkian and Lynchian. Haynes, like Lynch, likes to create these exaggerated white picket fence ideals in order to deconstruct them, to explore the metaphysical horror beneath these sleek surfaces: a tendency captured in that charged closeup of Carol about to lop off the bud of a yellow flower, an image of tranquil beauty on the verge of being destroyed. Carol’s house is in a state of perpetual disarray, constantly under construction, as though she believes that if she can only perfect this sterile living space, she will be happy and fulfilled. Haynes frames Carol as tiny within her own home, dwarfed by the size of the rooms and the clutter of furniture, lost in the array of colorful pastels. There’s something alienating about this space, particularly in the scene where Carol answers a phone call from her mother, and the long shot shoves Carol off to the side of the frame, visually conveying the mix of meekness and distance in her brush-offs to her mother. “I’m fine. He’s fine. They’re fine.” She says it with such repressed rage, pronouncing that word “fine” as though it’s a curse.
And maybe it is. There’s nothing tangibly wrong with Carol or her life, only the curse of being “fine,” the curse of subsisting rather than truly living. Haynes makes this condition into a state of creeping existential dread. At times—and this is going to drive you nuts considering your thoughts about horror in our Trouble Every Day conversation—Safe is nearly a horror film about a woman’s reaction of terror to the ordinary surroundings of her life. My favorite scene in that respect is the one in which Carol walks into her den and Haynes maintains a tight closeup as she reacts with, well, the only word for it is horror, to something in the room that we can’t see. It’s the archetypal horror movie scene where the protagonist discovers a bloody corpse and realizes that the killer is lurking nearby—except in this case Carol has just realized that the furniture company delivered the wrong color couch. It’s a brilliant manipulation of genre conventions, especially when Haynes sticks with the scene through its aftermath, capturing Carol’s outrage and the maid’s nervous bemusement as Carol angrily calls the furniture company. This is the routine horror of Carol’s life. Later on, a sufferer of environmental illness describes walking down an ordinary hallway, being unsure of when the “monster” is going to jump out of nowhere. These are people who are afraid of everything, terrified of what might be lurking around every corner, unable to deal with the minor setbacks and prosaic struggles of ordinary life. Or, at least, that’s one interpretation of this rather slippery film.
JB: Indeed, that is just one interpretation, and I think I’m going to surprise you here: I don’t love Safe by any means, predominantly for some almost entirely subjective reasons that we can talk about later, but what I appreciate most about the film is its elusiveness, which is directly tied to its mixture of styles and an at least semi-intentional inscrutability. Given some of our past discussions, faithful readers of this series might assume that I would object to Safe’s ambiguity, but Safe is ambiguous in a multifaceted and very thoughtful way, and for me that makes all the difference. In our Mulholland Drive conversation, I objected not so much to the strangeness, imprecision or even randomness of David Lynch, but to the inescapable feeling that many moments in Lynch’s films are entirely abstract even to him. “Why-the-fuck-not moments,” I called them, wherein Lynch plays Rorschach and, all too often, gets praised for a meticulousness that I don’t think exists in those cases. (Aside: I realize it’s not Lynch’s fault how his films are received, and I admit I’m guilty of sometimes holding it against his films that some of his most ardent followers find genius in his every move.) Now, I’m not looking to revive the debate of what Lynch is or isn’t, or to start a detailed evaluation of Lynch vs. Haynes. Instead, I bring it up to help articulate the following observation: I never feel that Haynes is without intent, even when his films seem ambiguous or even contradictory.
Am I right about that? I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe Lynch and Haynes are equally aware or unaware, equally calculating or nonchalant. I don’t think that’s the point. The point is how I feel watching a Haynes film: that tremendous thought has gone into every narrative, theme and frame. This isn’t to suggest that I think Haynes is always successful at expressing his own thoughts cinematically, because there are times when I suspect his films are unintentionally indistinct or convoluted. But even then, especially when watching Haynes’ films in close succession, I feel his intent, or at least think I do. I don’t always understand what he’s going after, but I’m sure he’s going after something, and that means a lot to me.
All of which leads me back toward Trouble Every Day. Believe it or not, I thought about that film while watching Safe, too, because in addition to the horror angle you mentioned it strikes me that Carol’s experiences provide yet another insightful example of addiction, particularly in terms of our society’s reluctance to accept the disease model when faced with conditions that don’t always come with visible physical indicators. There are numerous scenes in Safe in which Carol’s husband and even her doctor demonstrate skepticism about Carol’s condition, as if it’s all in her head, as if she could wish it away, as if all she needs to do is try to get better. They are like the frustrated family of the addict, wishing their loved one would “just stop using.” But the addiction metaphor goes much deeper than that, because its most heartrending element is the way it reveals the experience of the addict, the difficulty of carrying the burden of your physical condition and the added weight of all those looks of doubt, which include the expression the addict sees when looking in the mirror. What Safe so brilliantly makes clear is that even Carol doubts whether her condition is real or just something in her head, some kind of weakness. This is in spite of the fact that at one point she goes into a full-on seizure. There’s a reason the first step of the 12-step recovery process is to admit powerlessness in the face of addiction: often the person living with the condition is the one who has the hardest time accepting it.
EH: That’s yet another compelling reading of Safe, and one that relates Carol back to Superstar’s Karen Carpenter, in that both women are confronted with an “oh, why don’t you stop being crazy” reaction from their families and loved ones, who are mostly frustrated and annoyed by the inability of these women to control their bodies and minds. Implicit in this treatment is the fact that they’re both women, and therefore not to be respected or trusted—there’s a long tradition, both in the cinema and in society, of women being written off as “hysterical” for all sorts of complaints and ailments, and Carol is being dismissed in the same way. It’s another sign of Haynes’ profound sympathy for his female characters; he displays a very deep understanding of the subtle ways in which women’s concerns are downplayed and mocked. This is especially evident in small touches in Safe, like the way that Carol’s doctor hands a psychiatrist’s card to her husband, sitting next to her, rather than directly to her. The husband and the doctor exchange a knowing glance afterwards, commiserating as they consider the unspoken implication that Carol is simply imagining her illness, that she’s just a typical nutty woman. Later, when Carol has to stand up and speak about herself at a meeting, she quickly falters to a halt and reflexively looks to her husband to explain the rest, indicating the extent to which she’s interiorized her own inferiority, her inability to speak authoritatively even about her own condition, her own experiences.
I think all these layered meanings and emotional undercurrents confirm the truth of what you say above: “I don’t always understand what he’s going after, but I’m sure he’s going after something.” Safe, in particular among his films, is (I think purposefully) vague about its intent and meaning, with Haynes substituting a whole array of thematic and emotional intimations for a single throughline of meaning. Safe has often been interpreted, like the “Horror” segment of Poison, as an allegory for AIDS, the disease spreading mysteriously while the social and medical establishments shrug it off and various self-help groups arise with pseudo-spiritual “solutions” to the epidemic. Haynes certainly seems to be mocking that kind of charlatanism in the film’s second half, in which self-help guru Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman) is described as “a chemically sensitive person with AIDS, so his perspective is incredibly vast.” Dunning’s philosophy puts the responsibility for illness solely on the sufferer. “No one out there can make you sick,” he says. He’s encouraging the idea that sickness is only a function of one’s anger and weakness, that the ill will get better if they can only think themselves happier and healthier—it’s a harsh but subtle satire of the way AIDS sufferers were and are often blamed for their own disease, disguised behind calls for “personal responsibility” and the like.
At the same time, the film could be taken as yet another of Haynes’ parables for what it’s like to feel isolated from society, or as a Lynchian subversion of suburban normality (he even stages what can only be called a Lynchian perm, where the hum of the hair dryer and the abstracted images make even a hair salon seem sinister), or as David Ehrenstein has suggested, “a personal nightmare expressing [Haynes’] fear of turning into a Valley Housewife.” The genius of the film is that it allows these different readings, not only to coexist, but to intertwine and comment upon one another. It’s such fruitful ambiguity because it allows for the complexity of the situation, for the possibility that nothing in life means only one thing. I appreciate that Haynes doesn’t try to hammer home some big—and likely obvious—point about AIDS or suburban conformity or gender. Instead, he develops all these threads that weave through the film without ever coming to the fore, without ever emerging as a dominant element in the larger pattern. The treatment of Dunning is one example: he’s a target of satire, clearly, with his willful ignorance of the larger world, his hippy-dippy aesthetics and his trite philosophy. But Haynes, as he so often does, leaves it up to us to decide what exactly he’s satirizing here, or if perhaps he’s skewering multiple targets at once.
JB: I couldn’t agree more. Next to Carol, Dunning is the most significant character in the film, both in terms of what he symbolizes and his effect on Carol. Haynes has a clear distaste for Dunning, who appears to be more interested in playing the healer than in actually healing. Dunning is a snake oil salesman, living in his house on the hill at the expense of genuinely ill people who buy into his shtick. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but we have no real evidence that Dunning has AIDS.) Dunning speaks in evasive riddles, saying things that sound profound and then changing the subject before anyone has the chance to ask him what he means. In my favorite Dunning scene, he sits down at the edge of his little stage, folds his hands and makes a “confession” that he’s stopped reading the newspaper and watching the evening news. Why? Because he’s afraid the media’s “gloom and doom” will negatively affect his immune system. “And I can’t afford to take that risk,” he says, before adding: “Neither can you.” In that moment, Dunning effectively disassociates himself from the media, citing the media’s fearmongering, only to then follow the media’s lead. He might as well have said: “The media tries to manipulate you to be scared. You should be afraid of that!”
Thing is, though, while Dunning might be a huckster, he seems to be a somewhat productive one. Carol hardly flourishes in Dunning’s care, but she does show some signs of becoming her own person, and for Carol that’s significant. It’s here that the film is perhaps most ambiguous. Safe ends with Carol celebrating her birthday with a rambling, nonsensical speech, after which she retreats back to her bunker where she gazes at her own reflection and whispers, “I love you.” Whether this is a hopeful ending or a tremendously depressing one is up for debate. On the hopeful side, Carol seems to be finding a sense of her own self. We could see her birthday speech as a sign of her mental instability, but it could also be argued that it’s a powerful step forward, an attempt by Carol to think and feel on her own. That’s no small thing. Besides, after all that self-destruction, pain and self-doubt, maybe one of Carol’s problems at the end really is self-loathing. Maybe Haynes is suggesting a kind of rebirth as Carol climbs into her igloo womb and recites a mantra of love. Or, maybe, all of that is wrong. Instead, maybe Haynes feels that Carol’s condition is a tragedy: her personal breakthroughs are always inspired by her further retreat from the real world. In that light, the end of the film would be asking, “What’s happiness worth if it requires us to shelter ourselves from the world to find it?”
Which of these interpretations is correct? If I had to choose, I’d go with the tragic reading, with Carol pulling a Norma Desmond and further descending into her madness. Yet I recognize a compelling case exists for the happy reading, and I have no problem whatsoever with the fact that Haynes keeps his final feelings about Carol indistinct. The ambiguity of Safe’s final scene isn’t negative in any way. Not unless Haynes thinks Safe’s conclusion has one unmistakable interpretation, at which point the lack of specificity would be Haynes’ fault.
EH: Haynes is certainly leaving the ending up for interpretation, but personally I feel like Carol is nearly as misguided and lost at the end of the film as she is at the beginning. There’s a clear connection between Carol’s isolation from the world at the end and Dunning’s smug pronouncement that he no longer keeps in touch with the news: he’s celebrating disconnection and apathy, as well as self-absorption. Moreover, it’s surely notable that Carol’s birthday speech, though perhaps a breakthrough for a woman who previously would’ve looked to her husband to speak for her, is composed mostly of fragmented phrases taken from Dunning’s psychobabble and the meaningless jargon of the environmental illness movement. Far from finding her own voice and thinking on her own, Carol has stumbled upon a new man to tell her what to say and what to do: hardly much of a step forward. In breaking free of the restrictions and familiar routines of her old life, in many ways Carol only submits herself to a new set of restrictions.
Still, the final closeup of Carol is so haunting precisely because we’re left to wonder what she’s thinking, whether she’s making a genuine breakthrough or only hollowly repeating the words “I love you” to her own wasted face in the mirror. Her gaunt, pale, blotchy face, her expression terrified and despairing, is the visage of a woman who’s seemingly hit rock bottom; and yet, as Haynes holds that final closeup for an uncomfortably long time, we’re left to wonder if she really has hit bottom, or if she still has farther to fall. At one point before this breakdown moment, Dunning’s co-manager Claire (Kate McGregor-Stewart) tells Carol, “Everything got taken away from me, everything in the material world, and what was left was me.” This is meant to be inspiring, but one senses that this is exactly what Carol is afraid of: that she might strip away the familiarity of a life that was suffocating her, only to be left alone to face the truth of her own emptiness, her own blankness. There’s so much fear in Carol, including even the fear of losing the familiar torments of her stifling life, which to some extent she’s grown accustomed to and even come to rely upon. That’s why she goes searching for new meaning in the ideas of others rather than truly trying to get in touch with herself, at least at first. Maybe, in that final shot, she’s finally realized that she can only rely on herself to get better. Or maybe she’s stripped herself down to her bare essence and realized that, no matter how many times she repeats her self-affirming mantra, she doesn’t really like what she’s found.
JB: Or maybe she doesn’t even know what she’s found. I’m with you: there doesn’t seem to be a lot of growth in Carol. About the only thing she seems certain of by the end of the film is that she’s sick, that she doesn’t fit within the larger world, and that’s something her mind and body were telling her long ago.
And that brings us to the film’s cinematography. Safe is aesthetically bleak, mirroring Carol’s condition. The film is almost entirely void of closeups, except in instances in which Haynes zooms in to capture Carol in one of her physical breakdowns. For the most part, Safe consists of uncomfortable long shots, compositions that make the characters seems distant, cold and unknowable. At least a quarter of the film goes by before we ever get a good look at the face of Carol’s husband. And even Carol is elusive. On that note, I’m always a little puzzled when people cite this film among Julianne Moore’s great performances, because the truth of the matter is that she isn’t given very much to do. Her character doesn’t talk much, doesn’t really do much, beyond her breakdowns, and the camera is too far away to read the emotion of Moore’s face or eyes. In many scenes, Carol is a physical prop as much as she’s a human character, as reinforced by several compositions that find Carol sitting almost statue-still in the middle of a typically ’80s interior, as if she’s another piece of furniture. I’m not criticizing Moore. I’m simply pointing out that it’s the cinematography that best suggests Carol’s mood, as often as not. The film’s long shots suggest detachment while the muted palette, the extreme opposite of Haynes’ approach to color in his subsequent films, reflects Carol’s anemic, sickly condition.