How Safe shows the realities of living with an incurable illness

Todd Haynes’ 1995 film stars Julianne Moore as a woman who becomes “allergic to the 20th century”.


Stephen Puddicombe

Carol White leads an unremarkable life. Played by Julianne Moore, she is the housewife of a successful businessman who occupies her time with mundane activities, sometimes socialising with her bourgeois friends, sometimes ordering furniture and working on her lavish home. One day, she is struck by a coughing fit while out driving, amid also feeling ‘run-down’, but this too initially appears to be benign, as her doctor insists that nothing is the matter. But her health nevertheless deteriorates, as bouts of nosebleeds and vomiting develop into fits and seizures, until she is prompted – having been offered no diagnosis from any doctors – to join a remote retreat ran by new-age practitioners, in order to escape the ‘chemicals’ she comes to believe are causing her allergic reactions.

Her disintegration into ill-health is the focus of Safe, Todd Haynes’ second and arguably best feature. The director of I’m Not There and Carol masterfully establishes a chilly atmosphere, infusing every scene with a sense of unease to highlight how even the banal somehow poses a threat to this poor woman. Characters are mostly framed in impersonal long and mid shots during lengthy, static takes, emphasising the emotional distance between them. The film’s visual style is often eerie and frigid, especially within Carol’s fashionable suburban home. And the score alternates between prolonged silences and foreboding dissonant noises, the kind of thing you’d hear in a horror film to create a sense of dread and inform that all is not well.

In fact, Safe plays out a bit like a horror film – only the monster that torments the protagonist is invisible and never explained. Julianne Moore beautifully conveys her character’s anguish, embodying a physical and psychological disintegration that is profoundly distressing to witness. It’s not easy to carry a film as a character defined by her timidity and reticence, but Moore does just that, bringing to Carol the suggestion of a deep well of untold and unarticulated thoughts that intrigues as much as it mystifies.

What is it that causes her breakdown? That’s the question that lingers over any viewing of Safe, and has preoccupied many critics grappling with the film. One school of thought is that Carol is allergic to modern life, that the sterility of her affluent but empty Reagan-era existence (the film is set in 1987), where wealth and commodities cannot make up for her passionless marriage and superficial friendships, drive her into bad health. Others attempt to diagnose her with psychological disorders, perhaps some form of depression, or hypochondria. Or maybe we can even take it at face value, and entertain the thought that she does indeed suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity that is triggered by everyday chemicals?

But Carol’s illness is not meant to be explained – rather, the horror of the film lies in that fact that it is inexplicable. In Unrest, a recent documentary about the mysterious disorder ME (aka Chronic fatigue syndrome), director Jennifer Brea calls out the myth that something that eludes the knowledge of medical science must instead have some other comfortably understandable cause. People like Carol can fall ill without any explanation, and no speculations about deeply repressed traumas, nor cleverly thought-out theories bringing up sociological or philosophical milieus, can account for it. Her condition is all the more unsettling for how stable, albeit drab, her life initially appears to be, and taps into a deep fear that it could without warning afflict anyone at any time.

In this sense, the real theme of Safe is how society misunderstands and mistrusts the victims of such mystery illnesses. Whether its doctors who insist nothing is wrong with her, a husband too preoccupied to offer support, or the New Age guru whose self-help teachings, though ostensibly about empowerment, implicitly lays the blame at the victim, there is a widespread assumption that Carol could somehow will herself back into good health. The notion of an illness with no known cause and no known cure is too troubling to contemplate.

Published 12 Nov 2017

Tags: Julianne Moore Todd Haynes

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