City Paper is not for tourists
re you allergic to the 20th century?” asks a flier in the health club frequented by Carol White (Julianne Moore), the emblematically named protagonist of Todd Haynes’ Safe. Carol’s answer, she ultimately realizes, is “yes,” and that’s presumably Haynes’ as well. In just which 20th century, though, is this film set?
Safe has an eerie, tragicomic rigor that sets it apart from most films that have opened this summer. (Its closest kin might be the sadly underappreciated Amateur.) Using lots of long shots, Haynes chillingly establishes Carol’s uneasy, diminished place in her upscale, overwhelming world. Safe sometimes looks like Alphaville in the San Fernando Valley, a parable of alienation in deepest suburbia. Yet there’s some of Haynes’ own unique Poison in there too: As Carol gets sicker, she becomes an ethereal, transcendent martyr.
The question of Carol’s martyrdom is a tricky one. On one level, Safe is of course an AIDS allegory. (In an early scene, when the brother of one of Carol’s friends has died, they exchange a hushed, anxious “It wasn’t…?”) The emaciated Carol also recalls the anorexic Karen Carpenter, the victim of torturous contemporary standards of female attractiveness who was played by a Barbie doll in Haynes’ first film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Alone in the absurdly grand house she shares with her aloof husband and almostnonexistent stepson, Carol looks like a figurine in a dollhouse; her fellow aerobicists note that Carol doesn’t sweat, yet another clue that she’s actually made of PVC.
It’s Carol’s life, however, that’s supposed to be plastic. Her new sofa set makes her sneeze, the exhaust from her Mercedes makes her gag, the chemicals in her new perm make her nose bleed. Eventually, Carol decides she has “multiple chemical sensitivity,” and she flees to Wrenwood, a refuge in the New Mexico mountains, to escape everyday toxins and breathe clean air.
Multiple chemical sensitivity is accepted as a legitimate medical complaint, but it’s unclear that Haynes himself takes it seriously. Like a TB or cancer patient from 19th-century or early-20th-century literature, Carol seems to be primarily suffering from repression, as well as the coldness of her workaholic husband Greg (Xander Berkeley). Her prim, manicured existence is the sort of prison that female film protagonists rebelled against in such late-’60s and early-’70s parables as The Diary of a Mad Housewife; in another century, Carol would have been diagnosed with “hysteria.”
When Carol arrives at Wrenwood, we find that most of the patients are women, while the prime healer is a male new age quack who tells them (here come the Victorians again) that they’ve made themselves sick. Haynes doesn’t necessarily accept this judgment, and it’s not clear whether he considers women weaker, more sensitive, or simply better surrogates for the gay men whose isolation and suffering is his actual concern. Safe returns to many of the concerns of Superstar and Poison, but Haynes fails to connect them convincingly to Carol’s psychic estrangement or physical distress.
Still, Haynes likes unsolved mysteries, and perhaps it’s just as well that he didn’t tie things together neatly. Though devotees of narrative resolution will be frustrated, visually the film sustains the glancing luminosity of the exquisite opening credit sequence, and its open-ended conclusion is more resonant than its glib sociology. The character of its protagonist is not especially well served, but Safe‘s quiet ominousness is more effective than that of more blatantly apocalyptic visions.
The vengeful solidarity of the sisters (one of the film’s proposed titles was Sisters) soon spreads. In a scene that shows how little stereotypes of Southern womanhood have changed since Harper Valley P.T.A., Grace details the sexual indiscretions of various prominent local men to her women’s group, dissolving the meeting into chaos. Then she tells her mother of her father’s adulteries, leading Mom to lock Dad (Robert Duvall, his eyes twinkling just as merrily as Quaid’s) out of the house.
These developments are pure wish-fulfillment. Something celebrates women who have the, well, balls to humiliate their straying spouses in public—and the means to live comfortably without them. (It also helps that the chastised husbands are Southern gentlemen; they wouldn’t think of hitting back.) The film announces that men are (in Emma Rae’s term) “dogs,” and yet counts on them to be gallant even as their kind is vilified. When Grace almost sleeps with a divorced horseman, he’s the one who tells her she’s “not ready.”
Perhaps simply because it was directed by Hallstrom rather than Ridley Scott, all this acrimony doesn’t lead to gunplay. Instead, the film gradually surrenders to the compromises of the wife’s lot. The sole female character who achieves an unalloyed triumph (on horseback, of course) is Caroline, the only one not yet betrayed by puberty.
Ultimately, discovering her husband’s adultery empowers Grace. It gives her the autonomy to redefine her life, and a big bargaining chip if or when she reunites with Eddie, who’s roguish but no brute. Something‘s credits roll to the accompaniment of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ “The Game of Love,” and the film is indeed an example of Hollywood gamesmanship. Despite the vehemence of some of its early scenes, there’s never any risk that Grace and Emma Rae will follow Thelma and Louise over the cliff. Even if they could live without their men, Grace and Emma Rae could hardly abandon the horses.
For $200 million (or whatever), you’d think Kevin Costner’s heavily publicized Waterworld would at least be entitled to some sort of reaction. The film, however, is so devoid of personality that it’s difficult to care whether it sinks or not. Apparently the editing-room fix was simply to excise anything of interest, in the desperate quest to salvage the film from laughability.
Star Costner, who supervised the editing after director Kevin Reynolds walked (or was pushed) away from the project, maintains a glimmer of his usual persona as a vaguely Zen outsider: “I don’t hear anything,” complains chatty Enola (Tina Majorino), the kid whose tattooed back reveals the route to the fabled Dryland; “That’s because you’re too loud,” snaps Costner’s Mariner. Otherwise, it’s Dennis Hopper or nothing. When he’s not on the screen, doing his usual demented-villain shtick as the chief of the rapacious Smokers, the closest thing to dramatic development is the breaking of the waves.
Essentially Mad Max at sea, Waterworld tries intermittently to get a rise out of the audience: Mariner’s first screen act is to filter and then drink his own urine. But the lack of fresh water, like the Smokers’ shortage of “go juice,” never amounts to anything more than Mariner’s unexplained mutation (he’s got gills), which allows for a little interspecies hostility. The only conflicts this flick can dramatize are those involving harpoons, machine guns, or explosions. Mariner’s growing affection for Enola and her guardian (bland Jeanne Tripplehorn), for example, is inexplicable, and the Gilligan’s Island-in-reverse ending—rather than be rescued from a tropical isle, the protagonists are rescued by a tropical isle—is anticlimactic. But then everything in Waterworld is anticlimactic: It’s all a slow dive into tedium from the opening sequence, in which the earth in the Universal logo is gradually submerged. It’s the only clever moment, and one probably not conceived by Costner, Reynolds, or any of the film’s other big spenders.