With Carol regalvanizing Todd Haynes’ career in a layer of cinematic majesty, let us take a look back upon his initial breakthrough into the mainstream.
It does not require a degree in cinema studies to divine that Safe’s luxuriantly alienating mise en scene is as formidable and potent as that of any film in director Todd Haynes’ career, and arguably any film of the 1990s. Historians of the medium are no doubt aware that the 1990s were a golden age of independent cinema in the rabble-rousing, improvisational John Cassavetes milieu, but no familiarity with the decade at large is necessary, or even preferred, to bask in Haynes’ stringent, exacting evocation of social space as domineering predator and community as unstable fallacy.
Safe perches itself precariously on a potentially hazardous metaphoric malady: that Carol, a wealthy housewife in mid-’80s LA, is suddenly and inexplicably not only disgusted by but allergic to markers of the modern world (exhaust fumes, aerosol spray, and the like). Yet the metaphor is exhumed from the realm of the overbearingly symbolic insofar as it is externalized in the combustible surface beauty of the film. Safe’s “horror movie of the soul” credentials are enshrined in its perilously plotted character framing, none of which amounts to knowing or overly calibrated artifice but instead dialects with Carol’s position in society both physically and mentally. Although Haynes’ world is not Ozu’s, he challenges the preservation of tranquil domestic space with as much virility, transforming rooms into plastic dioramas of social dejection and clinical, clerical plaster sanitization divorced from the lifeblood of sensitivity and sensory experience. Provocatively, Safe is an explicitly sensory movie about a world of sensory overload curdling into sensory deprivation, thus implicating the audience in the very experiences that eventually overwhelm Carol throughout the film.
The most terrifying of all experiences being human contact. Although Carol certainly engages in nominal public interaction, the circumstantiality of every conversation is envisioned primarily, but not exclusively, in the walking-dead nature of her character, where every line is gestured and contrived as if prodded rather than truly felt. Moore, in a sensationally loping, wandering performance, invokes a trance of happenstance and ineptitude, construing Carol as a flaccid, facile mask upon which we imbue meaning. She’s an outer shell as frail and glass-like as any other artificial object in the frame. With Carol allergic to the plastic environment, the plastic nature of her character seductively, sinisterly begs whether she is also sickened with herself.
More exquisitely, Haynes’ deeply Renoirian utilization of wide, lateral frames, depth-of-focus along the z-axis, and open framing mechanics – which draw our attention not to portions of the frame but the totality of the frame – all conspire to entrap Carol in a penitentiary of banal, unknown spaces she not only can not control, but can not fully understand. In the truest horror movie gesture of all, space feels malevolent, poisoned by its own contamination with the human species. Cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy parades Carol around in an impressionistic malaise of shuffling dread, with composers Brendan Dolan and Ed Tomney silently coasting us along on the choking, low-key Lynchian moan that contrasts discordantly with the kitschy ’80s selections that take on an aura of the disturbed as the film progresses. The antiseptic pastel pinks, greens, and purples that wrap around the clothing and the décor of Safe soon slither out into the air itself, almost orbiting around Carol like a growth sapping her of energy and divorcing her from reality.
Even the external walks Carol takes at night to retrieve a semblance of the natural world for her ailing soul manifest insidiously; the knowledge of toxic chemicals in tow, the hyperbolic green of the foliage grows gruesome and ghoulish. Elsewhere, the masculine gaze wraps around the film, observing Carol with a mix of pity, control, and befuddlement, never seriously considering her ailment until she rejects and revolts against that gaze. Psychiatry, meanwhile, is only a troubling arbiter of depression, with the domineering space of the frames crushing Carol and her psychiatrist and giving the lie to the profession’s often maladjusted assumption that self-help is the designated path to betterment. New Wave medicine fairs even worse; their thoroughly individualistic “thine inner self is the cause of your worries” mantra is projected in frames that are no less alienating and all the more estranged from genuine human contact.
Every frame, in fact, tells its own tale about experience and society and interrogates and casts doubt on assumptions of help; most perfect are Haynes’ excruciatingly uncertain conjurations of social space, where supposed collectivity is undercut by Carol’s loneliness in every frame. Whether she is walled off by objects in the frame, heterogeneously projected onto a different lateral layer of the frame than everyone else, or caustically presented as a stagnant object within otherwise moving pictures, Safe demonstratively entangles loneliness with collectivity, presenting communal spaces as chain-like masquerades that reveal only alienation and visual disharmony.
It is tempting to refer to Safe as a psychological horror film, yet it defies the top-down logic of psychological horror where a character, so to speak, has an essential, internal self manifested in the externality of the environment. In such a film, abstracted, canted angles might reflect the tormented, fractured inner soul of the character in question. They are films that totalize with a complete and absolute knowledge of character that permeates through the air in the film, yet Safe projects a different, more subaltern path where the subcutaneous is not reflected in the outer realm, but instead impressionistically refracted by that outer realm. We don’t know if the square-riddled, angle-addicted geometry of LA is a door into the true essence of Carol’s mind or merely a window we can peer through to glimpse partial, provisional truths about Carol always naggingly left incomplete by the fact that we are simply onlookers and observers struggling to know without necessarily knowing.
Cruel at first sight, Safe’s reticent insistence on its own surface level, on its own failure to render the opaque translucent through might of filmic force, both shivers the spine with thoughts of the world’s opaqueness and tantalizes us with the frightening reality that our art can only partially save us from such an unknowable nature. Within Safe, our senses become not only the mechanisms by which we know Carol as a person, but by which we confront our inability to know what amounts to a blank, provisional slate of a person always shifting and reformulating her presentational self in relation to the world around her. The film tacitly withholds our ability to understand Carol, instead offering us tentative glimpses into how she relates to, and resists, the world. She is not a symbol with a defined meaning, but a cross-hatch of shifting glances, fears, tempo shifts, resting tempers, and flailing hope to transcend.
Almost all films distort the world around the characters, twisting it to unearth a fundamental, expressionistic truth about the internal character that lies within. In this world, a film that declines to plummet, and even questions its ability to plummet to a human’s inner core, is distinctly and knowingly self-reflexive about the ways humans relate to cinema and the world. In a world replete with surfaces, a world of surfaces, it is humbling to sometimes remember that a film screen is often as surface-bound as anything else.