With Safe and Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes took the mid-century melodrama and mediated it through a postmodern sensibility. However, whereas Far From Heaven was still set in the 50s – a stylised pastiche of the 50s – Safe takes place in 1987, in the San Fernando Valley. In the tradition of Douglas Sirk, Haynes’ film focuses on a woman with a heightened relationship to domestic and residential space, a woman who feels her environment in every fibre of her being – Carol White, a wife and mother, who starts to experience a series of odd symptoms. These begin with headaches, nausea and vomiting, and progresses to skin lesions, general frailty and deoxygenation, but Carol’s doctor can’t find anything wrong with her. Nor can her psychiatrist or her husband, leaving it up to Carol to figure out what is happening to her body.
Eventually, Carol diagnoses herself as suffering from “environmental illnesses” – a new cluster of diseases that hasn’t been recognised by the medical establishment yet. People who experience these environmental afflictions speculate that their tolerance to everyday substances is gradually breaking down. While environmental illness involves any artificial product, it’s generally associated with atmospheric transmissions and resembles what we might now describe as electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Carol’s house is next door to an enormous transmitter, which she speculates might have triggered her own condition, while the people she meets identify similar origin points for their environmental sensitivity – working for two decades at a perfume counter, growing up next door to a fumigation plant.
All of these trigger points involve sprays, mists, aerosols or electromagnetic radiation – particles that invisibly and intangibly animate the space around us. While we never see these atmospheric conditions directly, Haynes does evoke them through the pixellating television screens that typically mark each new stage in Carol’s own environmental affliction. This analogy between aerosols and pixels suggests that Carol is ultimately suffering from a hypersensitivity to new media that both makes her acutely attuned to media in the present, and prescient of a new kind of media and an emergent form of connectivity on the horizon.
In that sense, Safe plays like an updated version of mid-century melodrama in which the domestic female body becomes the privileged surface for registering the shift from a classical postmodern lifeworld to a more digitally dispersed lifeworld. To that end, Haynes keeps Carol’s condition somewhat under-drawn beyond these broad parameters – the space around it is what really matters. When she visits a psychiatrist, he treats her life as a space – “What is going on in you?” – and we never get any real sense of her backstory or future aspirations. Instead, she simply emerges from the spaces in which she appears – or disappears into them. In one of her worst episodes, she seems to blank out and fade entirely into her bedroom, calling out to her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) to ask him anxiously: “Where am I – now?”
In other words, Carol exists primarily as function of (or an accoutrement to) mise-en-scene, just as Haynes always situates her very deliberately and meticulously in his own mise-en-scenes. Since she’s just moved into a new housing precinct in the San Fernando Valley, she feels especially attuned to this mise-en-scene, as if she came with the property, which exudes the very particular sense of space that comes with new houses built to a plan. Despite that, Carol is already renovating her home in the opening scenes, drawing our attention to it as an object and an environment. Part of being trapped in this mise-en-scene is her own obsessive attention to it, encapsulated in an early crisis when a furniture company delivers a teal couch instead of a black couch. Carol is thus more of a homemaker than a housewife – we barely see her husband or her son, so much time does she spend making and remaking her home.
Haynes gradually turns this exquisite mise-en-scene into a form of entrapment over the opening act of Safe, which almost plays out as a series of pellucid photographs. Virtually all the shots are still, and often take place from a reserved distance, swallowing Carol into all the period details that surround her. While there is some camera movement, it’s only (slowly) forward and back, and orchestrated in such a way that is simply reiterates this sense of constraint. In the first dramatic pan (relatively speaking), Haynes pulls back from Carol in her living room, but any sense of expanding space is quickly offset by a series of other framing devices that come into view, trapping Carol anew as she seems to be glimpsing a larger space.
There is, however, one source of dramatic movement – the point-of-view shots through Carol’s windscreen. While Carol may succumb to the suffocating stillness of every individual space, she does live a relatively peripatetic lifestyle, spending her daily routine moving between different tasks and lunch dates. The film only really opens up when we see the San Fernando Valley through her windscreen, where it’s normally accompanied by a series of moody synth refrains that uncannily pre-empt Mulholland Drive. Yet this expansion also turns out to be a constriction, ushering in the climactic trigger for Carol’s environmental afflictions.
Whereas other environmental sufferers trace their condition back to sprays, mists and aerosols, Carol’s comes when she’s caught behind a garbage truck that spews smoke into her car. To be sure, there’s a clear point about environmentalism here, especially in a city so renowned for its smog and commuter pollution. But the choking claustrophobia of this exhaust fumes also produces a new spatial field, forcing Carol off the road, and into a postmodern carpark, where she drives around and around before finding herself utterly lost. Eventually, she parks her car at an askew angle, and stops to catch her breath, like the couple in Don DeLillo’s White Noise who died after getting lost in an average suburban shopping mall.
From this point, Carol’s environmental illness starts to produce two contradictory symptoms – a sense of being too connected to her environment paired with a sense of not being connected enough. We see this dynamic in the soundscape, which is always full of enhanced ambient noise that makes you aware of a whole swathe of connective spaces just off screen. Carol is like an antenna, picking up signals and bursts of ambient sound, meaning the spaces around her brim with a new connectivity, a sense of things moving through the ether. This feeling of being both too connected and not connected enough is encapsulated in a dolly zoom of Carol as she stands in her living room. As we move closer to her, we move farther away, and vice versa, evoking an emergent spatial field that won’t conform to an analog lens.
While the ambient noise evokes this field, Haynes tries to embody it with an ambient synth hum that subsists beneath the surface chatter – again, remarkably redolent of Angelo Badalmenti’s minimal score for Mulholland Drive in the way that it suggests unseen connections. Carol can only approach this hum at night, by walking to the threshold of her house, where she switches her gaze between the very close and the very far, between the roses at her feet and the city in the distance, as if trying to envisage a new kind of middle ground. One of these scenes is preceded by her gazing out the window at highways and power lines on the way home, as she imagines a new connective media, or medium of connectivity.
However, Carol can only stay at this threshold for so long before her husband calls her back inside, or the local security patrol question why she’s remaining outside. Between those two options, this new connective space also feels like a critique of heteronormativity, which is what has reduced Carol to this postmodern ornament to begin with. The technology and décor might have changed, and social mores may have ostensibly changed, but Carol is as much a function of décor as her forebears were in the 1950s. In fact, Haynes suggests, the rise of queer visibility has just made this constriction more paranoid, especially in the wake of the AIDS crisis, which has forced suburban American to recognise queer life in a new way.
As a result, Safe also plays as a thought-experiment in how the AIDS pandemic has dovetailed with an emergent digital sphere. Early in the film, Carol learns that one of her friend’s brothers has died, and asks an open-ended and vaguely worded question about whether he died from AIDS. From that point on, AIDS becomes a synecdoche for everything that remains unspoken, or unspeakable, about Carol’s own condition, while also partaking of the central paradox of her condition – to be more and less connected at the same time. In Haynes’ vision, AIDS has created a new environmental paranoia in American culture, but it has also continued to break down the suburban distributions of space and time that excluded queer people to begin with. Haynes, like Carol, yearns to be less connected to the actual condition of AIDS, but more connected to the uniquely queer forms of solidarity and sociability that it has helped to foster.
No surprise, then, that Carol’s environmental affliction initially plays as an inability to adhere to heteronormative requirements. In the early scenes of the film, we barely see her husband except as a lumbering mass on top of her in the bed, while one of the biggest consequences of her condition is not being able to sexually pleasure him. The first public symptoms of her condition is her inability to laugh at a piggish joke about women and vibrators, indicating to her friends that she isn’t occupying the public sphere of heterosexual coupledrom in quite the right way. Finally, her major breakdown occurs at a baby shower, where she invites a little girl to sit on her knee, only for this girl to break away, terrified, as she realises that Carol is having convulsions. The girl’s revulsion spreads to the other women, no matter how politely they frame it, and casts Carol as somehow “outside” motherhood as she has been cast “outside” coupledom, especially since we never seem to see her interact with her own son.
To combat this decline, Carol heads to the Wrenwood Centre, a self-help institute in the Californian desert that draws on the hippie movement, New Age ideology and the AIDS pandemic. It’s led by Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), a “chemically sensitive person with AIDS,” who enjoins his community to create a world “where strangers are as family and loneliness can’t hide.” On her first night at Wrenwood, Carol reprises her compulsive walk to the fringes of her house in the San Fernando Valley, except that now she doesn’t end up at a fence, but in her own cabin, which is situated on the very periphery of this property. As she gazes out into the night, she glimpses a new digital ether even as the film glimpses a space beyond the vilification of AIDS, making this one of the more poignant beats in Haynes’ work.
To some extent, what ensues, in the third act, is one of the more utopian visions in Haynes’ career too – at least up to a point. Living with AIDS requires a total reconfiguration of one’s environment, so it’s a good paradigm for Carol to think through her own environmental sensitivity too. Even as she looks more and more like a mid-90s AIDS patient – frail, on oxygen, covered in lesions – she embraces Peter’s reminder that “today is another precious day on earth.” In one address, Peter recalls a dream of black lesions turning into black pansies, while Carol’s final speech, before leaving, collapses her recovery into everything she’s learned about “AIDS, and other types of diseases.” In a strange way, this almost feels like Carol literally coming out as having AIDS. That’s obviously contradicted by the first two acts of the film, but Haynes also evokes a suburban America where AIDS simply couldn’t occur, ideologically, meaning that Carol literally couldn’t have been diagnosed with it back in her Valley enclave.
These precious moments in the third act evoke a convergence of digital culture and queer culture (especially AIDS communities) over the next decade – and there’s something amazing about that. But the optimism comes with a certain price. When Carol’s husband comes to pick her up, he finds her more frail than ever, and less amenable to their coupledom too. Before, she couldn’t sleep with him, but now she can’t even hug him goodbye when he’s compelled to leave without her, since she’s developed a further hypersensitivity to his cologne (which he hasn’t even worn for a couple of days). In that sense, Wrenwood has worked better on Carol than on any of her companions there, making her less connected, to be sure, but also making her more connected, removing her even further from her husband even as her body declines in direct proportion as well. The only next step is to retreat from Wrenwood into an adjacent space that is both connected and not connected to Wrenwood – an igloo in the middle of the property, formerly occupied by the most sensivite inmate, and totally sealed.
In the last scene of the film, Carol makes her way into this igloo, accompanied by another young gay man she has befriended, and who appears to be suffering from AIDS as well. As she enters this purely white space, and the ambient hum of the film accelerates into white noise, Carol looks at the camera, engaging the audience in a final act of direct mediation that implicates us in the emergent environments of digital culture and the AIDS pandemic without offering us the utopian solace of the third act. Rather then resolve the female body in postmodern space, Haynes simply situates it there in a more acute and intensified manner – a perfect ending to one of the best films in his career, and most resonant with our present.