Dir. Todd Haynes. Starring Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman
Carol (Moore) flips through her guide to Wrenwood. Peter Dunning (Friedman) appears to have founded the center all the way back in 1978; by now it could be 1988, although the given year for the movie is ’87. 1978 is an interesting year for him to have chosen to open it; in that year, some of the very first deaths from a disease which was nameless then, shortly thereafter took the colloquial name “gay cancer,” followed by GRID, and ultimately AIDS. (Ken Home, who died in April 1980, would be the first American to die of something people would call “AIDS” or “AIDS-related complications.”) Dunning couldn’t have founded Wrenwood as a response to AIDS unless he was extraordinarily prescient, but the point stands. Some of the little hallmarks of AIDS are present on Carol, like the inexplicable sores and the shortness of breath.
Her husband, Greg (Berkeley, who is very fine in an understated role), her primary doctor, and even Carol herself will all, at some point, trace her illness back to a “fruit diet” she gets on from a friend’s advice. The doctor tells her that it was a ridiculous idea in the first place; she can’t get any protein from fruit. The “fruit diet” is at once punning on the slur for homosexuals as well as a more famous fruit diet which ended rather badly for its taker in 1987. Liberace, who died of AIDS in February of that year, was said to be suffering from anemia because of a “watermelon diet.” Haynes is sly in all of his movies, but in this one, when he is not actively playing off anything so grandiose as All That Heaven Allows or the glam-rock scene, I think his digs are most pleasurable and deepest. (My wife says Safe reminds her most of Red Desert, which is probably the right answer.) Consider the scene where Carol, trailing a great big truck which is leaving some heavy exhaust in its wake, begins coughing. It’s not the first time she’s not felt right, but it’s our first indicator of a sickness she won’t be able to shake.
She’s in the car, listening to some talk radio. A caller is talking about how her belief in Jesus is so strong that she goes to bed every night and is ready for Jesus to take her up into his embrace. To her, some other person’s faith, his fundamentalism, is a little weak. It turns out she’s talking about the president, a man who was in office when AIDS crashed on America like a nuclear warhead, and did nothing. Assuming that the caller is right and we’ll all have to answer to God someday, I imagine Ronald Reagan’s meeting with the Almighty will take up a little more time than the average person. Haynes may agree; although the truck is in front of Carol this whole time, it’s not until we mention Reagan that her coughing begins to really accelerate and become uncontrollable. It’s a wickedly funny moment underneath the panic of Carol’s sudden illness. Haynes has found the late ’80s in his film and given it some grievous wounds.
It’s not just this kind of exercise for housewives, done in razzmatazz outfits with covers of “Heaven is a Place on Earth” blaring in the background, which Haynes has an eye on, but he recognizes a curious fact about Carol’s very typical problem. There is visible mirror space between her and the other women in this class; she is much further away from them even in the beginning. In her comments to others, she has little to say, even when the original comment invites her to talk on a little. She smiles broadly but cannot quite seem to engage the other women on the same level that they are, presumably, willing to engage her.
In this shot at her locker, all that she can do is awkwardly raise her lips back to the other women after they’ve tried to give her a compliment (“You don’t sweat!”). She doesn’t quite seem to speak their language, not in anything more than short gasps. In fact, when she does speak, she tends to ramble, as if the words she has are coming through some previously unseen breach in the dam, slipping through almost entirely without reason or organization. Perhaps she feels she lacks the authority, for she moves in circles which are not really her own. At her exercises she willingly yields the floor to the other women. She silently tags along to her husband’s business dinners, quietly and unemotionally has sex with her husband in their bed, takes drinks for herself or others from her maid. See how her husband’s coffee, taken from her maid and to be given to him after they’ve listened to her stepson’s racist little essay about gang culture, becomes a reason for her to be literally walled off from him. Having married into extraordinary wealth, having lived in total luxury, having had no responsibilities more interesting than picking up her stepson from soccer practice, she cannot lay claim to very much at all. Zones of intimacy are anything but. Zones of social engagement are stultifying and intimidating.
No sphere is her own, except perhaps the outdoors late at night, where she’s prone to wander as her illness worsens, but even then she cannot guarantee herself agency. A patrol car, seeing a woman in her nightclothes in the garden of a mansion with a three-car garage, calls out to her ensure everything is all right.
Although the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s is a clear corollary for the events of the film, down to the frighteningly clueless actions of her doctors, who cannot pin down a cause or a cure for her sudden illness, the explicit statements in the plot lead us to a literal interpretation of “environmental causes.” The video that Carol watches with that brilliant phrase within – “Are you allergic to the 20th Century?” – gives us insight into her sickness which she could only guess at before, and which others around her clearly appear to have guessed at themselves. She is in a hall with dozens of other people, all of them lined up neatly, from several ethnic backgrounds and, based on the clothing alone, from different social classes. Carol’s face in this scene is calm and analytical, very different from the sadness she shows at home or the impotence she is prey to when she has an attack. The alienation, in a setting where she can identify with some flaw in the others, is not quite gone, but it is defused.
I like to think she’s allergic to her environment because all of it is plastered with coral and teal. Although her first violent coughing fit begins with Ronald Reagan, the film begins around the same time that she receives two black couches. (The chief mover is a younger Dean Norris, though sadly he appears when the film is located in the San Fernando Valley, not outside Albuquerque.) She’s aghast when she first sees them – they don’t go with anything in the house – and quickly has them switched out for the teal models they ordered. They are friendly colors, maybe even too friendly, and they are utterly dominant.
Here’s Carol in the doctor’s office, receiving a decongestant and a scolding about the fruit diet.
I love this next one especially; it’s a bewilderingly perfect shot not just of the profound, glowing, electric coral/teal combination which envelops Carol in her bed, but of the distance between her and Greg. Greg is not given to speeches above forty-five decibels, and he’s much the same way here. He drops two f-bombs in the same sentence to rail against Carol’s week-long headache, tossing his shirt as he does so. (Now that early scene where Carol’s blank face is the only thing visible underneath her rutting husband is doubly telling; Greg appears to need sex in the same way a cow needs milking. His spleen is directed more against his wife than his wife’s rapidly worsening physiology.) And now, wrapped up in the vast Day-Glo trendiness of her life, she is forced to be alone with her condition.
I can’t get over the blue in the corner, which is not merely ghostly and eye-catching in comparison to the watered-down colors of the bedroom, but which is relatively unseen in the film itself. Strong primary colors give way, in large part, to more obviously manufactured variants. There is a scene at an allergist’s office which gives his back room the full Nykvist.
And that blue, when it does show up as it does outside her bedroom, helps us to code Carol’s loneliness at home.
In these long shots, Haynes frequently places Moore in the middle of the shot and allows the scene to grow around her by adding noise. The scene above is one example, as Carol has the television on. Here’s another one, remarkably composed, from the beginning of the film.
While drinking her milk (her second glass in maybe ten minutes of total film time), appearing perfectly wholesome while her house moves with early morning excitement, the camera begins to close on her. Given what we know about environmental illness and the basically poisonous effect that fumes will have on her later, the men painting her kitchen are important figures. They have the radio on. There’s bustling and conversation from off-screen. There’s a marvelous contrast behind her; on our left/her right, there are winding stairs and rich dark colors rare in this film; on our right/her left, the painters are framed in straight lines by the square columns and underlined by the black tile, painting the patterned cabinets white. On one side, the view undulates permissively, maintaining a useful structure; on the other, regimentation is the order of the day, and the noise, noticeably, stems from the regimented end. The noise punctuates every moment; it’s enough to make a person go crazy. Though the score belongs primarily to Ed Tomney, its key sounds are traffic and the ambient noises of city life. They come to intrude on even peaceful moments.
In the still above, we view her from the (again, strangely distant) perspective of her new shrink. The pinky coral is predominant here not merely in her clothing, but in the glow behind her caused by the translucent curtains. (An overdue credit here to the film’s DP, Alex Nepomniaschy, who is certainly deserves praise for the occasionally ethereal presentation.) As the center of attention from a person’s perspective, she rambles; her explanation of her condition is pitiable word vomit.
She’s also centered in what is probably the film’s most famous scene, the one at a baby shower for a friend.
Her haggard breathing is out of sync with her lips, a choice which renders her struggle even more terrifying than it would be otherwise; we’re hearing something which is removed from the reality of a woman struggling to catch her breath, like a death rattle which is hanging over her. Notice the pink to one side and the teal to the other, and most horrifying of all, in my opinion, is the decidedly greenish shadow on her face. It’s a spectacular effect, even though in the moment one is more inclined to follow the gasping and the very real-looking fear on Moore’s face instead of the unusually colored shadow on her left temple.
Ultimately, the coral/teal combination leaves her like this, and still swathed in those dangerous colors:
Few films give up their palettes with the willingness that Safe does, but after a point, once Carol decides she wants to go to Wrenwood, the scene shifts from the San Fernando Valley to Albuquerque, from the infested freeways of the L.A. metropolitan area to the clean Chihuahuan desert. And the colors are, even indoors, much simpler and warmer and far harder to get onto a Happy Meal toy. The browns are browns and the darkness unmolested by city lights. Teal turns to a darker, richer color, while coral loses its moistness and becomes beige or topaz.
Carol is significantly caged in, as the picture above demonstrates. (It’s another sensational scene; Carol begins to sob alone in her cabin, perhaps recognizing that at Wrenwood she is even more alone than she was in Los Angeles.) The rules at Wrenwood are awkward and strict. A moving camera documents Claire (Kate McGregor-Stewart) as she lets the new folks know that, for example, breakfast and lunch are silent meals and that sex is verboten. She says these things quickly, in a strained tone of voice. Peter also has a habit of speaking quickly when something displeases him, as if getting it over worth rapidly means it’ll go away immediately. Carol doesn’t want to share in a group counseling setting; Peter raises his hands and says, speedily, that he doesn’t want to rush anybody. It seems to work for Peter, who, according to Susan (April Grace), has environmental sensitivity and AIDS. He looks well. He lives in a giant mansion above the camp itself, separated from Wrenwood proper by a road that Carol, walking freely and assuming the pristine quality of nature in a way that would have made Thoreau chuckle condescendingly, accidentally runs into. Indeed, she almost gets run over by a truck. Peter is quick to damn negative thinking; positive thinking is what keeps him alive and healthy. And if something is too negative for his tastes, he simply removes it from his life. No more newspapers, he tells his flock, no more television news. He guides his adherents to answers-become-laws: one woman is bullied into “forgiving” sexual abuse in her past. Peter is the most Reaganesque, right-wing character in the film despite all of his hippy-dippy affirmations and power of positive thinking foolishness. The members of his cult (what else can we call them?) live in huts while he lives in a great big house. He refers back small requests and complaints to his bureaucracy. When Carol asks Peter if she might switch to a different cabin to avoid any downwind fumes from the road she ran into, he dismisses the complaint with a “You’ll have to talk to Claire.” He demands obedience. Most importantly, he turns self-care – even self-care for purely medical issues – into a referendum about personal responsibility and discipline. Its population is presumably wealthy enough to go to a designer cleansing center; Wrenwood is where Paul Ryan would end up to deal with a dependency. And for all of the beautiful wood and the clean sand and the growing scrub and the distant mountains, the scene of silent mealtimes should remind us viscerally of where Carol came from.
Haynes is making a powerful statement here, and one which I think is even ignored by many reviewers: there is no escape. Carol goes from her normal life and then creates an “oasis” in her home. Carol’s oasis doesn’t work and she goes to the hospital. The hospital can’t do anything for her and she goes to Wrenwood. She goes to Wrenwood, has a minor relapse, and leaves her cabin for a self-contained porcelain bubble which is like a bomb shelter inside.
As hard as Carol tries, she will not triumph over her illness. There is only the worsening, the spells of decent near-normal life followed by the beatdown of what’s growing inside and spreading inside her and taking over her body. If this is a metaphor for AIDS, especially the AIDS of the late ’80s, then it is one which depicts the degradation of that illness and its irrevocability with great knowledge and no escape. AIDS was a death sentence then, a death sentence without dignity or sympathy, one which inspired fear in onlookers like few pandemics have since the Black Death struck Europe in the 1300s. If this is a parable about living in the 1980s, then Haynes, even with the limited vantage point of less than a decade, can already tell that the hedonist-capitalist late Cold War will transition very neatly into the Macarena-capitalist Clinton administration. There is no resolution for her. Carol may take Claire up on the self-directed mantra “I love you, I really love you” to end the film, but to what end? A fat lot of good self-love will do for her dead body. Here she has lost the redness of her hair, the color in her face, her freckles, her bright eyes. Even the coral and teal, her Pantone Erinyes, have been vaporized in favor of gray hues. She may as well already be dead; she takes the role of the deceased and the one who offers the eulogy: “I love you.”
There is only one person in the film who seems to really understand what’s going on in the world, who comprehends the unchanging and immutable horror of the late 20th Century, and that’s Lester.
Lester is terrifying; he is like the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, but without the fantasy setting. Even though he has no eyes, he can look at you; he always keeps his head directed at the camera. Dressed out in outerwear which covers his entire body, even his face, moving jerkily with angular, shaking steps, he is especially unreal in such a pristine natural setting. He is only ever seen from great distance. He is soundless; the movements he makes do not necessarily dictate that there’s something alive in there. Any talk of “unsettling imagery” in this film must begin and end with him.
The first time Carol sees him, he’s walking, if what he does can be called walking, behind a couple of cabins, entering from the right side of the screen and exiting on the left. We don’t expect things to appear from the right in our culture; just as Anthony Perkins enters from the right when he kills Martin Balsam in Psycho, this is the definition of unnerving.
If Peter did not come by and tell Carol who he was and why he’s dressed up in that fashion (according to Peter, he’s afraid of everything), then we could hardly credit his reality. We would have assumed that the land, or the illness, or her own creeping insanity might have caused this apparition to come forth. But it turns out to be a real person, a real man underneath the layers, allowed even within the strict enclave to be a peripatetic nightmare exempt from the laws. Peter thinks he can win the fight against the world by being a cheerier, equally fascistic version of it. Greg, who’s never heard of Foucault, thinks he can win with doctors and diagnosis and science. Carol thinks that through her own effort, through some kind of merit, she can win a round of roulette which will make all of her sickness melt away. Only Lester realizes the only thing you can really do is hide.