After months of dragging my feet, I finally signed up for the Criterion Channel last month, precisely because I had just seen Portrait of a Lady on Fire and was annoyed I couldn’t find Céline Sciamma’s debut Water Lilies (featuring a bb Adèle Haenel as a smoldering teen swim instructor) streaming anywhere. This isn’t an ad, but just a month or so in and I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. Case in point, another previously un-streamable masterpiece was recently made available to watch right now: Todd Haynes’s 1995 movie Safe.
In Safe, Julianne Moore plays Carol White, a meek suburban housewife living in 1987 Los Angeles. Carol begins to feel she has come down with some mysterious illness, caused by a vague set of factors like fumes on the highway, cleaning products, and the environment in general. Suddenly, everything in her life is toxic to her, which confuses her square friends and family. This unknowable affliction brings her to a community of others who feel “allergic to the 20th century,” and Carol goes so far as to quarantine herself from others to get better.
Get better how? It’s not totally clear. Haynes’s movie is frigid in the way his other features like Carol and Far From Heaven, both lush with color and texture, aren’t. And Julianne Moore, in one of her earliest breakout film roles, is like a whispery doll of a person: totally hollow and forever smiling in a blue of white, suburban baby showers, aerobics classes, and fancy dinners. At the time of its release, Safe was in part about the AIDS epidemic, as Todd Haynes told The Dissolve in 2014: “I wanted to bring up the behavior that we all exhibit around illness, particularly in the way we try to attach meaning and personal responsibility to illness, and how much illness and identity are mixed up with each other.” But in 2020, taking in all of the disturbingly vague ideas Carol absorbs about toxic materials, I thought a lot about Goop and how the wellness industry profits from unsubstantiated ideas of illness. Concepts that are portrayed as aggressive in the film, such as the benefits of fasting on the body, eating clean, and this fucked up, overarching idea that illness is always a result of simply not having the right mindset, feel like accepted ideas in 2020.
It’s also depressing to watch Safe now, just a year after Haynes’s film Dark Waters, a thriller based on the real-life story behind the DuPont company and the discovery that Teflon caused cancer and other defects in those who used it. Though it was an informative and startling movie, Dark Waters was aesthetically commercial in a way that felt like a departure for Haynes. Safe takes a lot of its themes and runs with them with a sense of art-house weirdness, an approach I hope Haynes returns to in whatever his next movie might be.