"Safe," the new film by Todd Haynes, is set in the foreign country of disease. Far more complex and far stranger than the average illness-of-the-week TV movie, the film , which opens today at the Charles, tells the provocative story of a prosperous Los Angeles housewife (Julianne Moore) who begins to run down in a number of ways and to the puzzlement of family and friends.
Her ultimate destination is total isolation. She's alone with her sickness, whatever it is, and only when she's stripped herself of all her encumbrances, the film seems to argue, does she have much of a chance of dealing with it.
Deadpan satire and muckraking indignation are the superficial values of the film -- it's merciless on the follies of wealthy women with too much time on their hands and too little content in their underused brains -- but the truer course it seems to run is as a clinical examination of passivity.
Carol White, played with almost negative presence by Moore, is such a dim puff of life that the only thing interesting about her is her illness. Moore, a powerhouse actress, can't be accused of a star turn here. She simply gives herself over to the wispy Carol, a delicate reed on the perfumed zephyrs of the Southern California lifestyle. As we meet her, Carol seems intimidated by everything: the sofa deliverymen, her distant businessman husband, her loud, shallow friends, her own banality.
Haynes, who also wrote, gives her nothing interesting to say. She's semi-incoherent, and her life seems oddly inconsequential, even to herself. For a time, I thought the film was building to a conventional worm-turns-and-kicks-butt kind of deal, but no: Haynes works the line all the way to its logical end, as the poor woman seems to shrivel to even smaller and smaller dimensions.
Haynes has a strange reputation, first made on "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," a film documentary of the life and death of Karen Carpenter, as played by a Barbie doll. It's one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed. His next was an odd gay triptych called "Poison," which was a big hit on the festival circuit, possibly for one of its scenes, filched from the works of poet Jean Genet, that pushed the barriers of the watchable.
Passivity seems attractive or stimulating to Haynes. He's made Moore's Carol White a kind of fictional Karen Carpenter, who becomes weaker and weaker as the story progresses, to the total confusion of even those who love and believe in her.
Strangeness is everywhere here. It turns out that Carol's debility isn't cancer or anything knowable; rather, it's a strange syndrome called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, described as a sensitivity to the toxins in the air. It baffles clinical physicians, some of whom deny its validity and dismiss it as world-class self-pity. That's exactly the attitude that Carol runs into from conventional male doctors.
But soon she discovers and is ultimately absorbed into a New Mexico cult run by a writer who recognizes the disease and preaches the doctrine of purification. But the movie is so odd: It treats conventional medical professionals and wealthy housewives with more amused contempt that it does this strange tribe of desert dwellers who live in "fume-free cottages" and gather for holistic lectures in the community room. I kept waiting for ATF to burn the place down.
Moore is almost too good: Her Carol is such a schlumph that she has soon exiled herself from our sympathy. But worse, the film is underdramatized. Haynes refuses to traffic in conventional melodramatic story structure. But that leaves him with nowhere to go, and the movie feels so muted it's as if the director has Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Frequently fascinating, it never builds into anything profound.
Starring Julianne Moore
Directed by Todd Haynes
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
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