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Wednesday, March 10, 1999

Safe and unsound in the 20th century

"Safe," the 1995 film by "Velvet Goldmine" director Todd Haynes, was one of those films that was never going to be an easy sell. Indeed, Haynes and his producer Christine Vachon had difficulties from the start in finding backing for the film. Theproblem wasn't controversy -- on the contrary, it was the religious right's attack on his previous work, the NEA-funded "Poison," which helped put Haynes on the map. Rather, people just didn't seem to "get" it. (Ditto for Tokyo distributors, which is why "Safe" is only opening after the success last year of Haynes' flashier "Velvet Goldmine.")

Truth be told, "Safe" is one of those films that is hard to "get" -- at least, for those who are expecting the film to dictate one clear-cut and obvious interpretation. Ostensibly the film is about illness, contemplating the '80s-'90s rise of mystery illnesses like AIDS, Gulf War Sickness, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and various chemical and pollution-based disorders. But this is hardly an "issue" film: The viewpoint of the filmmaker is so restrained and subsumed into the work itself, that -- like with Michelangelo Antonioni's films -- viewers can flounder.

But for those willing to ponder and discuss its sleek images, "Safe" represents an absolutely flawless gem of a film, its polished surfaces and opacity hiding a hard inner core of truth. "Safe" has its finger on the pulse of modern unease, as it takes a chilling look at mind-control, conformity and the unseen hazards breeding within our chemically enhanced lifestyles.

The film's story is centered around a San Fernando Valley yuppie housewife named Carol White, into whose plastic-fantastic life creeps a disruptive and disabling form of Environmental Illness (EI). As played with an almost scary degree of self-effacement by Julianne Moore ("Boogie Nights," "Short Cuts"), Carol lives an existence as sanitized and antiseptic as her name, or the tall glasses of milk she's constantly quaffing. Sex with her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) is passionless, aerobics workouts are sweatless and her lunch-time chit-chat with friends is content-free. The L.A. gangbangers that her son writes about in his school essays seem like echoes from some dim and distant place. Everything is as "normal" and ordered as it could possibly be.

Then comes the chaos. Carol begins to be plagued by a multitude of vague but disturbing symptoms: coughing fits, bloody noses, stumbling, exhaustion and finally even seizures. The doctors find nothing "wrong" with her, and suggest it's psychosomatic, a suggestion which the viewer finds hard not to consider as well. And yet, when she's lying nearly catatonic on the floor of a dry cleaner's -- chemical hell, as it were -- it's hard to believe that this is coming from solely psychological problems.

What's interesting is how after seeing Carol succumb to the illness, literally everything in her environment becomes seen as potentially suspect, and we share this paranoia. Haynes lets the camera linger on power lines, diesel exhaust, hair-perm gel and deodorant sprays. Without seeking to affix a clear cause, he subtly demonstrates to what extent our environment is awash in dodgy artificial substances.

Carol eventually ends up at New Age clinic/isolation retreat Wrenwood, where sufferers of EI are attempting to recover under the care of charismatic health guru Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), and his feel-good mantra of "we are safe, and all is well in our world."

Dunning claims to have healed himself of EI and AIDS, and his philosophy is emblematic of the New Age movement: "The only person who can make you sick is you," he promises. "If your immune system is damaged, it's because you've allowed it to." After some hesitancy, Carol takes to the Wrenwood self-love philosophy wholeheartedly, but she keeps getting worse, not better.

This is where many viewers stumble, on the cognitive dissonance of not really trusting Dunning -- who looks suspiciously healthy and wealthy -- and yet wanting his treatment to work for Carol's sake. Draw your own conclusions; let me just note that the ironies are apparent enough. Note how close the "chemical-free" center is to a freeway. Or, better yet, the Wrenwood patient who says of her husband's sterile igloolike isolation hut: "He was perfectly safe as long as no one set foot inside."

Even more provocative is the film's deliberate refusal to identify what's wrong with Carol, leaving viewers polarized as to whether the EI is "for real" or in her head. In fact, the film almost seems to encourage speculation between Carol's emotionally barren life and her illness. But this is a trap: You find yourself creating "reasons" for why Carol got sick, then you get to Wrenwood and see that this is the lie that they sell her -- explaining the inexplicable, pretending to make sense of things no one fully understands.

"Safe" is by far and away the best work Haynes has done, easily surpassing the flashier "Velvet Goldmine." Where that film was more free-form, toying with the ideas it contained as it reveled in visual excess, "Safe" is much more precise, and sure of what it wants to convey. Haynes' take on alienation, found in both yuppie materialism and New Age spiritualism, is devastating. Ultimately, "Safe" does not have all the answers, but it's raising exactly the right questions.

"Safe" starts tomorrow at Eurospace in Shibuya.

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