Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Columbia TriStar DVD
Carol White, a self-described “milkaholic” who is continuously dressed in pristine white, is Safe’s icon of purity. In an early scene, a couch is delivered to her moneyed San Fernando Valley home; instead of the intended teal, the furniture is black — a pun that metaphorically relays Carol’s indescribable contamination.
Carol becomes further ailed, and Safe is replete with visual tactics that propagate her deep vulnerability. Notice, for one, how she is always askew in symmetrical compositions; quite literally, she interrupts balance. Carol is established in a comfortable, operative marriage with a husband and stepson. There is nothing disruptive to this arrangement, at least detectably.
To her fault Carol is an entirely selfless character. She inherits multiple symptoms of an anonymous plague with the same submissive welcome that the slightest inconvenience from a neighbor would elicit. She is proportional yet frail, and these symptoms are havoc to her slender frame. Her condition necessitates companionship and acknowledgement. She can no longer be anonymous or passive. This interpretation is taken with knowledge of the film’s haunting ending, in which Carol addresses herself in a mirror — it is a moment of self-recognition, her first in the film. Confidence — in turn, selfishness — is a tenet of improvement.
Todd Haynes’ film is unavoidably commentative. Every action distills the thought that Carol’s condition is produced by her community and setting, although, I should note, interpretations resorted to Safe are entirely subjective. The film is only implicative. There is evidence to support a number of claims of Safe’s contemporary social relevance (including a frequent citation of Carol’s ailment’s similarity to AIDS), but the film is durably and tacitly ambiguous.
Carol’s supporters become skeptics as medical explanation does not accompany her condition. She is the target of sympathy for the film, although any citation of such is remotely unjust without mention of the comedy that supplements most every scene, as the initially cited one carefully denotes. Carol’s own solution to her problem includes responding to a video infomercial (which includes portrayals of caretakers who are so sympathetic as to be beyond parody); her recuperation requires her to abandon her family (her husband’s aerosol deodorant induces vomiting) to join a stilted community of sorrow and alienation. It is pathetic and, significantly, laughable.
In such a manner Safe is designed to activate judgment in the viewer. It contains a humanistic capacity to provoke, and it is, despite its unwarranted obscurity, one of the most thematically ambitious films of the ’90s.