Sick Leave

I'll be the first to admit that I didn't get Safe, the latest haunting study of an afflicted soul from writer-director Todd Haynes (Superstar, Poison). But I'm not sure I -- or anyone else -- was supposed to understand it. Haynes is one of those artists who uses conflicting symbols to raise disturbing questions and then ducks out of the room before delivering any answers. Safe gets under your skin despite the fact that it makes no sense. It's a neat trick that only the best cinematic stylists can pull off.

Carol White (Julianne Moore, looking as pale and brittle as a porcelain doll) lives a flat, passionless, stultifying Stepford-wife existence. She drives a Mercedes, resides in a lovely San Fernando Valley home, attends an aerobics class (but doesn't sweat), endures boring sex with her dull but financially successful husband, and generally epitomizes the vacuous upper-middle-class suburban archetype. From the outside she appears to have it all, but in Haynes's view she has nothing -- no original thoughts, no outside interests, no aspirations, no desires, no love.

Haynes is not the first filmmaker to rail against the emotional sterility and spiritual bankruptcy lurking behind the facade of middle-class normalcy, but no one in recent memory so convincingly has presented this familiar world as if it were an alien planet. A drive down Carol's street at night feels like a surreal journey into another dimension, where streetlights glow like UFOs. Routine activities such as dropping off clothes at the dry cleaner, attending a baby shower, and getting a perm seem otherworldly and unnatural. Banal chatter -- "Beautiful purse." "How's your daughter?" "Did you see the den?" -- sounds so trivial that it must be code for something sinister; meanwhile, bizarre conversation (Boy: "How do you spell Uzi?" Father: "Just like it sounds.") perversely makes sense. Haynes's distaste for all things conventional is palpable. Wan, wispy, delicate Carol represents what happens when you buy into the yuppie dream without calculating the price. You lose the capacity to say, do, or feel anything interesting.

And so it is with Carol -- until she gets sick. A succession of doctors can find nothing wrong with her. But something is very, very wrong with Carol White. She experiences headaches. She has difficulty breathing. And she even collapses into a full-blown convulsive fit when exposed to certain everyday chemicals that pervade her world. Inks, dyes, fumes, vehicle exhaust -- all become threats. There is an official name for her disability -- Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, more commonly referred to as environmental illness. In a nutshell, Carol has become allergic to the Twentieth Century.

The question, which Haynes poses but never answers: Does Carol's affliction begin psychosomatically -- her body rejecting her suffocating bourgeois lifestyle -- or is it a purely physical phenomenon, a sudden intolerance to chemicals? Or is it perhaps a little of both?

Ultimately it matters very little. Carol's illness forces her out of the safe shell she has constructed for herself and obliges her to re-evaluate her life. She leaves her husband and stepson and moves to Wrenwood, a relatively toxin-free but way new-age "healing colony" in New Mexico; the place is run by a soft-spoken, reassuring charlatan who never raises his voice and professes that the ill have chosen to be sick. But despite the absence of offending chemicals, Carol's condition worsens at Wrenwood; by the movie's end she can barely walk under her own power, and ugly red blotches have begun to appear on her forehead. Desperate, she retreats into a drab-colored porcelain igloo in a final bid for safety.

Does Carol's worsening condition at Wrenwood mean that Haynes disagrees with the quack's contention that Carol brought her environmental illness on herself? In the early going, the filmmaker repeatedly wags a disapproving finger at Carol's comfortable numbness; does the fact that she gets even sicker after she leaves it behind mean that middle-class malaise wasn't really the root of her problem? Or did she just take action too late? Or was she just doomed from the get-go?

Haynes provides a wealth of clues, but none of them solves the puzzle. In the end you're left with a confused headful of vexing and contradictory images that stay with you long after the credits have rolled.


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