Photo Source: Robert Wilson
One of the creakiest critical clichés is to salute an actor for “disappearing” into her role. Beyond being overused, this cliché is ridiculous because it suggests that a certain kind of great performance can be gauged by the fact that we don’t notice the actor’s personality in the portrayal. The problem with such praise is that it tends to be doled out to larger-than-life actors who, for a change, decide to rein themselves in, as if restraint is some incredibly challenging undertaking that only the bravest can endure.
Julianne Moore disappears into her role as Carol White in “Safe,” but it’s a different type of disappearing act, a better one. And it’s perfectly in keeping with the character she plays, a woman convinced she’s fatally allergic to the 20th century.
Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1987, writer-director Todd Haynes’ 1995 film is part psychological horror movie and part social commentary. When it was made, Moore was just beginning to become the celebrated actor who would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards. Graduating from daytime television and bit parts in forgotten studio movies, Moore had impressed in back-to-back independent films, Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” and Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street.” But “Safe” was her most adventurous role to that point, portraying a seemingly typical Valley housewife who falls out of alignment with her enviable life of the nice house, businessman husband, and lengthy lunches with friends. She starts feeling lethargic…then it’s trouble breathing…then it’s bloody noses. Her doctor says she’s fine, but inside she doesn’t feel that way. And it’s only getting worse.
“Safe” can be seen as a barbed response to our paranoia about the latest societal scare. (The movie came out at a time when premillennial anxiety was just about to rev up, but its late-’80s setting places it in the AIDS era. Seen today, “Safe” plays like a disturbingly prescient take on post-9/11 terrorism fears.) But Haynes, who would go on to make “Far From Heaven” and “I’m Not There,” fiendishly refuses to nail down what is making Carol sick—or even if her illness is real or self-invented. The movie’s mystery isn’t what exactly is happening to Carol but why it’s happening, and Moore’s precise performance is central to the film’s power.
For most viewers, Moore was a relative unknown, and so there wasn’t much baggage from previous roles influencing our vision of her as Carol. But even from our current vantage point, Moore is extraordinary at playing a woman who’s vanishing before our eyes. At first, it’s the way that Carol seems to be minimized by all those around her: her distracted husband, her rudely dismissive stepson, a society that only makes her feel comfortable at aerobics classes and on pointless errands. Once her illness starts to take hold and she begins investigating possible remedies—fruit diets, oxygen masks, food allergy treatments—it becomes clear that Carol isn’t so much looking for a cure as she is searching for an identity, a way of being in a world from which she feels alienated.
Come Oscar season, we’re used to seeing actors dying of diseases in the name of awards, but Carol’s illness has a sting to it because its origins are unfathomable. (There’s not the comfort of a typical disease narrative because we don’t know where “Safe” is going or how bad it might get.) Moore plays Carol as an innocent, well-meaning woman without a backbone or a sense of self. These are not characters that some actors like to play: They’re weak, indecisive, and potentially exasperating. Carol is all three, but Moore makes her enormously sympathetic anyway. Part of this is due to Haynes’ nonjudgmental view of the character, but much of the credit must go to Moore, who radiates such warmth that we always sense that a sweet, decent woman is there inside Carol, except she’s so consumed with finding contentment through alternative medicines and self-help gurus that she never had the confidence to find herself.
As meek as Carol is, Moore’s performance has a steeliness to its vulnerability. That sounds like a contradiction, but Moore makes it work—it’s hard to think of a movie in which a character so fiercely tries to keep her head above water while drowning at the same time. With her feeble, placid voice and somewhat vapid observations, Carol is a pretty nobody, and Moore never tries to make her anything more than anonymous. That’s why “Safe” is such a wrenching experience. In real life, Carol is the sort of unexceptional person whose suffering we’d never notice. By making her disappear so tragically, Moore ensures that Carol’s plight is unforgettable.
Tim Grierson is a film and music critic for Screen International, Paste, Deadspin, and Playboy. His new biography of the band Wilco, “Sunken Treasure,” is available now.
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You don't always notice it, but during a lot of the scenes in "Safe" there's a low-level hum on the soundtrack. This is not an audio flaw but a subtle effect: It suggests that malevolent machinery of some sort is always at work somewhere nearby. Air conditioning, perhaps, or electrical motors, or idling engines, sending gases and waste products into the air. The effect is to make the movie's environment quietly menacing.
The movie tells the story of Carol (Julianne Moore), who may be allergic to her environment. Something is certainly getting to her. She lives in an affluent, antiseptic, luxurious Southern California home. Her only duties are to care for her health and appearance. She works out at the gym, drinks mineral water, uneasily supervises her household staff and attends "benefit luncheons." Her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) is a distant figure, who never quite seems to see her.
One day Carol collapses. There doesn't seem to be a medical reason for this lapse, and soon she is seeing not a medical doctor but a psychiatrist, who suggests that the problem is within herself.
He isn't much help. She grows weaker, more frightened. She suffers anxiety attacks. The world seems to be closing in on her. Eventually the movie, if not her husband, concludes that the environment is making her sick. She's being attacked by plastics, ozone, chemicals, high-energy wires, pollution, additives, preservatives, hamburger gases - the whole laundry list.
Carol escapes from the poisons by going to live at a spa in the desert, with other people who are also in retreat from debilitating allergies. And it is here that the movie gets sneaky, and interesting. The spa (run by a man who lives in a mansion overlooking the more humble quarters of the customers) is a touchy-feely kind of place, where once again Carol's problems are approached with the assumption that somehow she caused them. The leader, Peter (Peter Friedman), suggests in his selfhelp exhortations that if his patients could only get in touch with themselves, go with the flow, etc., they'd improve.
Carol does not get better. Nearby trucks still seem to be spewing out exhausts. She moves into a kind of igloo that is completely sterile. Maybe she'll be safe there. And as she continues her desperate search, "Safe" reveals itself as a little more complicated than it first seemed.
The set-up scenes have all the hallmarks of a made-for-TV docudrama about the disease of the week. We settle in confidently, able to predict what will happen: Carol's problems will be diagnosed, the environment will be blamed, and there will be an 800 number at the end where we can call for more information about how to save the planet. But that isn't how "Safe" develops at all.
Instead, Todd Haynes, the writer and director, has something more insidious up his sleeve. The movie starts out dealing with one problem (environmental poisoning) and ends up attacking another (a blissed-out cult that charges big dollars to suffering people, who pay to hear the leader blame them for their troubles). And then there's another level. To some degree, "Safe" suggests that Carol may in fact be responsible for aspects of her illness. Her life and world are portrayed as so empty, so pointless, that perhaps she has grown allergic as a form of protest. In that case, the spa won't help either, because it is simply a new form of the same spoiled lifestyle.
"Safe" never declares itself for any of these possibilities.
That is another of the movie's intriguing aspects. It centers everything on Carol, who is played by Moore as the kind of woman whom you feel like assisting to a nearby chair. Carol is not very bright.
She's too dazed by her affluent lifestyle to know what, or if, she thinks about it. Maybe she is poisoning herself. And maybe the blissful group leaders at the spa are doing to her mind what pollution did to her lungs. Or maybe it's a tripleheader: Maybe the environment is poisoned, and the group is phony, and Carol is gnawing away at her own psychic health. Now there's a fine mess.