I still haven’t forgiven Todd Haynes for I’M NOT THERE, one of those really stupid ideas that, surprisingly, makes for a really stupid movie. He’s a Critics’ Darling for CAROL and MILDRED PIERCE, among others. I can’t say I’m a big fan of his movies.
SAFE was chosen by the Village Voice as the best movie of the nineties. I don’t agree, but it’s a fascinating flick that seems to have dropped off the radar.
Carol White (Julianne Moore) develops “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity,” i.e. she’s allergic to the chemicals in the environment, everything from burning fuel to aerosol spray. She gets progressively sicker and attempts to isolate herself from the crap in the air.
That’s the plot.
The fascinating thing about the movie is you know where it’s going and you’re just compelled to watch. At no point does this come off like a Disease of the Week movie. Watching it, I never thought it would end with Moore, wet-eyed and regretting life choices as she died. That would be an easy out, and movies that the Village Voice critics like don’t end in easy outs.
Instead this is about watching a woman grapple with LIFE, not impending death. And she just keeps getting sicker, more sensitive to the very air she breathes.
It’s a typical indie flick of the nineties in that it shows Moore’s character as being a victim of The American Dream. She’s married, has friends, does housework, is a mother, but none of these things are depicted as anything but stifling. Her life isn’t horrible; it’s bland. And then this stifling blandness starts to get to her. Ultimately she’s so desperate, this little American Housewife We Can Mock For Not Being Cool, that she follows a New Age guru! (The only people I know in real life who follow such folks are Village Voice readers. Or were.) Haynes just keeps pushing her out of her Normal Life until we’re left watching her in complete isolation. In the final scenes she’s like an alien, The Woman Who Fell to Earth.
This was Moore’s first big starring role. Watching her housewife go deeper into the medical and alternative medicine and quasi-cult world, we see she’s not looking for an escape from her established life, but for peace. She doesn’t need to dump the husband and stepkid and hook up with a biker.
The problem is, she just wants to live, but she doesn’t know how. She keeps looking for alternatives. They don’t work. And she’s still alive.
The message about our environment is delivered with minimal preaching. The problem is THERE, we can see it working on her, and it’s easy to see Carol as the tip of the iceberg. How long until those of us less sensitive find it hard to breathe?
SAFE is a weird movie, all right, but it illustrates just how weird real life can get.