Theatrical Release Poster.  Image may be subject to copyright.

Theatrical Release Poster. Image may be subject to copyright.

The opening shot of Safe reels us right into the world of the film—broody synthesizers and organs play over a long take from the perspective of a driver making their way through a hilly neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. There’s no traffic, the streets are spacious and softly lit by streetlamps, and the houses appear to have ornate fences and driveways—it’s immediately clear we’re in a safe part of town. The last light of the sun is about to fade to black beyond the mountainous palm and pencil pine littered horizon, and silhouetted above the beaming headlights of the car, we can make out a Mercedes-Benz badge. This opening feels strangely familiar, at least to those who have seen David Lynch’s enigmatic love letter to Los Angeles and Hollywood, Mulholland Drive (2001). The opening sequence of Mulholland Drive features a stretch limousine slowly winding its way along the fabled road above the Hollywood Hills. We see the beaming headlights; we hear a dramatic score of synthesizers and organs; even the opening credits bear a similarity. It would not be unfair to assume Lynch drew inspiration from the opening scene of Safe—it was, of course, made six years before Mulholland Drive.

Our protagonist and the subject of this character study, Carol White (curiously holding the same name as Haynes most recent film, Carol) is a suburban housewife played by a young Julianne Moore. The relatively unknown Moore had made an impression on audiences a couple of years earlier in Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story collection Short Cuts (1993), where she played a young painter, memorably quarreling with her husband while nude from the waist down. In bearing witness to Moore’s performance in Safe, it isn’t difficult to see how she went on to become a household name. Safe paved the way for her later, more popular, roles in films such as Boogie Nights (1997), The Big Lebowski (1998), and Magnolia (1999), and, ultimately, opened the doors for her as a leading lady, and as one of the most highly regarded actresses of our time. Carol’s relationship with her husband, Greg White, played by Xander Berkeley, is sterile and cold at best. An early scene sums this up perfectly when Carol and Greg have sex in a manner that could be described as nothing more than passionless. Carol is completely emotionless and disengaged, like an object for her husband’s animal urges. Her relationship with her stepson, Rory, isn’t all too different—it’s just as cold and disconnected. We often get the sense that Carol doesn’t really like her son, that he’s an imposition.

The compositions in Safe are often wide and anchored in one place, drawing our attention to Carol as she travels hesitantly through her looming surroundings. Cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy masterfully balances light and shadow in the interior shots. Nepomniaschy’s manipulation of light coupled with the 80s set design quickly brings Chantal Akerman’s experimental documentary Hotel Monterey (1972) to mind—another inspiration of David Lynch’s, most apparent in his mind-bending Inland Empire (2006). The visual aesthetic in Safe, coupled with its ominous score, creates a menacing, foreboding atmosphere. Oftentimes, Safe feels like a horror film—like a ghost story of sorts—and in the tradition of great horror films, it isn’t so much what we see that scares us most, but what we dread. Carol is facing an invisible enemy that her friends and loved ones (as well as us as an audience) can’t see or fully make sense of—a controversial medical condition known as E.I. or Environmental Illness. Her condition is controversial because of its unspecific symptoms, rendering it very difficult to prove or disprove its existence. This begs the question as to whether Carol is actually sick at all, or whether her condition exists solely in her mind.

Science has revealed to us that the human mind has the power to create physiological responses and symptoms out of nothing but thought. People who suffer from severe anxiety, for instance, often break out in hives and rashes. In the same way that the thought of a delicious meal can cause one’s mouth to salivate, the thought or fear of a potential threat or illness can cause one’s body and mind to react, or in this case, break down and fail. Fatigue, coughing, nosebleeds, vomiting, seizure-like convulsions and rapid weight loss: it’s apparent that Carol is experiencing physiological responses, but whether they’re due to her surroundings—to toxins and pollutants in her environment, as she comes to believe—is up to debate and interpretation. It has been suggested that Haynes is commenting on the AIDS epidemic; specifically on the shame and stigma faced by its earliest victims. It’s worth mentioning that Haynes himself is openly gay and a key voice in the queer cinema movement.

Other than the possible underlying AIDS subtext, it could be said that Haynes is also commenting on the discontent of modern society and American life. We see this in how frustrated Carol becomes when her new sofa arrives in the wrong color, or in how she and her friends all appear to be endlessly searching for ways to improve their lives and increase their happiness, health, and appearance—whether by gardening, doing aerobics, starting fad diets, getting perms or buying designer clothes. This breed of discontent is a modern illness, as AIDS is a modern illness. Carol attends some psychotherapy sessions but fails to gain any insight into her condition. When her condition becomes almost too much for her and Greg to handle, she sees an ad in her community center and resorts to moving to a New Age religious retreat and support group for E.I. sufferers, called Wrenwood, operating out of an isolated compound in the desert. The cult-like nature of Wrenwood leaves the audience with an unsettled feeling—we doubt the sincerity of the group and its leadership, and we worry about Carol’s sanity. The group leader, Peter Dunning, convincingly played by Peter Friedman, bears the charisma of an evangelical preacher when he delivers his motivational sermons. Our feelings about this character are complicated by a revelation: Peter has HIV. Haynes seems to use this character to purposefully mislead the audience and leave us feeling conflicted about him and his agenda with the group—on the one hand, Peter is a victim and a survivor; yet, on the other hand, he reminds us of famous cult leaders of past, with a sliminess that leaves us constantly uneasy.

The ending of the film and our final moments with Carol are undeniably bleak, as she opts to live in a self-imposed prison on the Wrenwood grounds—a safe zone. Inside of this stark, grim, igloo structure, Carol is the most sickly we’ve seen her. Under a lone hanging light, her face appears bruised, gaunt and alien as she inhales purified air from her own personal oxygen tank. She slowly wanders over to a mirror on the igloo wall and, with blackened eyes, quietly repeats to herself, “I love you, I love you.”

Tom Yoannidis’s short story “Suicide House” won second prize in the Fifth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest, and his script “Runaway” won second prize in the Fifth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest.  Tom was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1990. Raised by a wild/artistic mother (model/private pilot/photographer) and an adventurous father (commercial pilot), he moved to New York on a whim in 2012 to study acting, and graduated from the Maggie Flanigan Studio in late 2014. He then moved to Toronto to work as an art director/art director’s assistant on TV commercials before returning to study Film at SVA. Tom is a hopeful director/writer in the making and an impulsive watcher of 70s cinema.