Todd Haynes’ SAFE is a Horror Movie for the Autoimmune-Afflicted (and those with otherwise “invisible” illnesses)

In my recent exploration of Superstar, I happened upon references to Safe, which I also had never heard of. The vague eerieness around it, plus my becoming increasingly down to hang with this Todd Haynes guy (the deal was probably sealed by this analysis: Press Play VIDEO ESSAY: Isolated Female Figures: The Films of Todd Haynes https://vimeo.com/144546119), made me add it to my to-do list without hesitation.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, since Julianne Moore’s harrowed expression in the stills I had seen suggested melodrama, and I knew there would be something to do with sickness brought about by the environment. A faint concern that one would have to be in the mood for a Lifetime-style illness drama to watch it made me put it off longer than I otherwise would have.

But last night, for some reason, I felt into it and found the entirety of the Criterion Collection version uploaded for free on YouTube, for those willing to put up with an ever-present Italian translation. Maybe this timing was counter-intuitive, since I had only just started to settle into something like acceptance of some new, predictably unpredictable, physical symptoms of my own that had obsessed me for the past week. (For the better part of a year now I have been slowly crept on by daily, migratory pain in various parts of my body that I can only assume is some sort of autoimmune arthritis. Its most recent target has been my feet. This has unsettled me more than I would have expected, and, young-ish and vain person that I still am, it has also inspired a fierce vigilance – maybe to the point of hyperactive imagination – for permanent, even if slight, joint deformities.)

So it was that I popped open a can of peach wine and finally sat down in front of Safe.

What pleasantly surprised me about the film was the mastery with which Haynes crafted the shots so that the most banal of things – sometimes even emptiness itself – were presented as a potential threat to the protagonist. Carol was frequently positioned in the center of vast, austere rooms with muted tones and gathering shadows, including in her home, supposedly the safest space. She also appeared consistently apart, even with her husband asleep in the bed beside her or with a house full of workers, which evoked the isolation that is intrinsic to having a chronic illness, especially a more or less invisible one. To someone like me, it mattered little that Carol’s potential plight was a weakened immune system and that mine is an overactive one; the commonality, and the element that arguably qualifies this as a horror movie, is the un-diagnosable ambiguity of it all. What physical revolt or deterioration will happen next, and what will set it off? What is a real threat? Can the threat change? The boogeyman is invisible and, to most, benign.

Photo credit: Sony Pictures

I should mention that a dread of trying to explain my whole symptom profile to a doctor, and an accompanying dread of being subjected to a costly, time-consuming trial-and-error diagnostic process, has led me to shameful procrastination. This was another extremely effective aspect of Safe – its portrayal of the patient being doubted, dismissed, and finally just abandoned to their own devices, an uncertain outcome and an absence of labels.

A number of the reviews of this movie rubbed me the wrong way. Good-faith as they may have been, they took a heavily metaphorical route and dismissed Carol as a frail, rich, white-girl dim bulb too clueless to figure out that her shallow, privileged lifestyle was killing her. Of course it’s understandable that they view it like this, set as it is in the Reagan eighties with its sexist business dinners, day-glow aerobics and fad diets, and given that Haynes’ embrace of open-endedness is aimed at allowing multiple interpretations. Nevertheless, I see the character of Carol more as tragic: a sensitive and kind-hearted person full of secret thoughts she has neither the tools nor the temperament to express, and radiating a stunted potential that, though it briefly rears its head when she finally asserts herself in front of her doctor and husband – probably will never be realized as she graduates from the bowels of one large machine only to become lodged in another. Also – and I know I am biased by my own ailments here – but I prefer to view it more literally: Carol actually is physically ill in a way that cannot be explained, and what makes it horrifying is the lack of trust on multiple levels, between the well spouse and the afflicted one, between patient and healthcare provider, and between oneself and one’s own body.

I’ll end by linking to the review that was most in line with my own thoughts on the film: https://lwlies.com/articles/safe-todd-haynes-living-with-an-incurable-illness/

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